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Video captures inmate fight club in Okla. halfway house

Footage shows inmates fighting inside the soon-to-be-closed, privately run Avalon Correctional Center

By Cary Aspinwall
Tulsa World

TULSA, Okla. — The shirtless inmates don street clothes and tap fists before launching into a smackdown, indicating that this is for money or sport, not blood.

Bystanders egg the two men on while someone records the match on a mobile phone.

Before the brawl begins, an inmate yells: "Y'all give 'em a cut man  whoever wins, give 'em that cut!"

A video obtained by the Tulsa World shows inmates fighting inside the soon-to-be-closed, privately run Avalon Correctional Center, apparently either to settle debts or for entertainment and gambling purposes.

Earlier this week, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced that it will empty inmates out of Avalon Correctional Services' Tulsa halfway house after investigations revealed "serious infractions" affecting inmate safety.

The inmate brawl is among several concerns the Department of Corrections found in its investigation that were severe enough to result in the cancellation of Avalon's contract for the Tulsa men's facility, officials said.

Avalon officials responded that DOC's decision is "unprecedented and unwarranted," and they consider it "politically motivated retaliation."

Avalon officials are expected to protest the Corrections Department's decision at the Oklahoma Board of Corrections meeting Friday in Oklahoma City.

The board is also slated to select a new director for the department. Former Director Justin Jones, a vocal critic of the private prison industry, resigned last year.

Attorney Louis Bullock provided the Tulsa World a copy of the video he obtained from a client so the public could be made aware of what was happening inside Avalon's facility, he said.

"I'm hoping more of the facts will come out," he said. "Eventually, the public needs to be told why their contract was canceled."

Bullock told the World that his investigation has found that fighting inside Avalon Tulsa was commonplace, and that some of it was allowed or ordered by the facility's staff for punishment or "for pure entertainment."

It's not immediately apparent from the video clip Bullock provided if any Avalon Tulsa officers or staff members are present among the room full of onlookers.

The department notified Avalon, which operates 10 halfway houses in Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming, that its inmate count would be frozen and that "the violations are so serious that the department will begin depopulating Avalon immediately."

"The Department has lost confidence in the administration of the Tulsa facility," Deputy Director Reginald Hines wrote.

All inmates will be moved out of the facility by Jan. 25, according to the DOC.

Under a contract with the department, Avalon operates halfway houses for offenders nearing the end of their prison sentences, including the 390-bed men's facility in downtown Tulsa.

The state pays Avalon about $34 per inmate, per day. The Tulsa men's facility had more than 200 inmates earlier this week, according to the DOC, so the closure could mean a loss of more than $7,000 per day for Avalon in inmate per diems.

The DOC is trying to relocate Avalon Tulsa's inmates without negatively affecting jobs or other programs, but with only a handful of other men's halfway house beds in the Tulsa area, "there may not be much we can do about that," spokesman Jerry Massie said.

According to the department's annual report, in 2012, Oklahoma spent almost $15 million on inmates in private halfway houses and more than $72 million on inmates in private prisons.

Avalon Chief Operating Officer Brian Costello emailed the World a statement that said the closure was based on "preliminary information" from an investigation of an incident occurring months ago.

"We do not deny that there have been isolated incidents at our Tulsa facility that required corrective action. Incidents occur daily at every correctional facility, public or private," Avalon's response states.

In November, DOC officials confirmed that they were investigating reports that staff members at the Avalon Tulsa facility stood by and watched as offenders fought and another inmate recorded the brawl on a cellphone, which is prohibited inside state correctional facilities.

After the investigation is complete, the facility could reopen if Avalon agrees to "requirements for further contracting," he said.

Other Avalon facilities will remain open, including a 289-bed halfway house for women in Turley and its Carver facilities for men and women in Oklahoma City with more than 500 beds.

The Tulsa inmate fights were among numerous problems alleged at Avalon's facilities in recent months.

The Tulsa World reported in December that a Tulsa County District Court lawsuit and witnesses allege that an inmate at Avalon's Turley halfway house for women died as a result of the staff's refusal to seek immediate medical attention after she became ill.

The lawsuit was the third filed against Avalon over a period of three months in 2013 for alleged misconduct at its Turley facility.

Others have alleged sexual assaults on female inmates while on work-release jobs and discrimination against a longtime volunteer.

Copyright 2014 Tulsa World


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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