Guard concerned about new celling policy

Friday, May 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A new policy that prohibits assigning inmates to cells based on their race is "fueling the fire" between rival groups at Oklahoma State Penitentiary, a prison guard says.

The policy, which was enacted to address racial discrimination claims in a longstanding inmate lawsuit, states: "Under no circumstances will race, color, or ethnic origin be the sole basisfor making housing assignments."

In the past, if an inmate didn't want to share a cell with someone of another race, the prison didn't force the issue, Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie said.

The new policy is causing many fights at the maximum-security state prison and is creating concern among correctional officers, said the guard, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"These guys are sworn enemies," the guard told The Daily Oklahoman. "What it's going to cause is death. These guys are not compatible."

OSP spokeswoman Lee Mann downplayed the guard's concerns, saying the prison won't knowingly put any inmate in a risky situation.

While the guard claimed that "white supremacists run thi splace," Mann said the prison never has recognized gangs as "being a power group to grant special privileges."

"We simply have to house the inmates that come here and make sure they are safe," Mann said.

Massie said implementation of the policy, dubbed "random cell assignment," has gone smoothly since the rule took effect March 15.

Inmate safety and security remain the top issues in assigning cells, he said. Intelligence officers keep files on alleged gang membership by inmates and review potential threats before housing a white supremacist and a black gang member together, he said.

"Obviously, you're going to talk to the inmates, going to look at all the information you have, and make a determination whether that's a suitable housing arrangement," Massie said

But Scott Barger with the Oklahoma Public Employees Association said correctional officers "were terrified of that policy when they first heard the rumors it was going to be implemented." The association represents about 1,500 prison employees.

"The prison environment is difficult enough," Barger said. "When you put people in there, black or white, they naturally gravitate toward their own cultures."