Federal investigators are looking into allegations against a Tulsa halfway house that resulted in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections pulling its inmates from the facility, Oklahoma Watch has learned.
Edward Evans, acting director of the Corrections Department, told legislators at a House public-safety subcommittee meeting Tuesday that the federal government was investigating issues at the Avalon Correctional Services facility in Tulsa.
Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie confirmed to Oklahoma Watch Thursday that the department had turned over evidence to federal investigators and department officials have had conversations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI about the matter.
An FBI spokesman said per the bureau’s policy, he could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
The Department of Corrections has three active investigations into Avalon’s Tulsa halfway house, according to a Jan. 14 letter from the department’s deputy director Reginald Hines to Brian Costello, president and chief operating officer of Oklahoma City-based Avalon.
Preliminary evidence showed “serious infractions” involving inmate counts, security, possession of contraband by inmates and offender safety concerns, according to the letter.
“The violations are so serious that the Department will begin depopulating Avalon Tulsa immediately” of its nearly 200 inmates, Hines wrote, adding that the evidence showed a breach that goes to the heart of the contract. The contract would be cancelled, the letter said.
“The Department has lost confidence in the administration of the Tulsa facility,” Hines wrote. The letter ordered all inmates removed from the facility within 10 days and limited the department’s inmate count at Avalon’s Oklahoma City facility, the Carver Center, to 225.
In November, The Oklahoman reported allegations that inmates were participating in organized fights sanctioned by officers at the Avalon halfway house in Tulsa. In January, a video showing a fight between two inmates at the facility was posted by the Oklahoman, the Tulsa World and other media outlets.
Avalon also has come under scrutiny over its halfway house for women in Turley, called the Turley Residential Center. Two lawsuits in Tulsa County allege that Avalon did not report incidents of sexual abuse and discriminated against a volunteer, according to a Tulsa World report in November. Incident reports also alleged other misconduct, including inappropriate relationships between staff and offenders and inmates testing positive for drug use. A corporate attorney for Avalon denied the allegations.
The issue of Avalon’s Tulsa facility was discussed during January’s Board of Corrections meeting, where Costello offered to replace the site’s administrator and pay for a full-time Corrections Department monitor at the facility.
State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, also spoke at the meeting, urging the board not to remove all inmates from the Tulsa facility because of an already overcrowded prison system and concerns about guard safety.
Costello said Thursday that he has heard the FBI may be looking into the matter, but his company has not been contacted by federal investigators.
Costello also said Avalon is working with the Corrections Department to come up with a list of changes to make to get the facility re-opened and re-populated. That list of changes and requirements should be available on Friday, he said.
Meanwhile, Tulsa attorney Louis Bullock, who represents some of the former Avalon inmates and who released the fight video to media, said he, too, has heard of an FBI investigation into allegations against Avalon. Bullock said he expects to file litigation in the matter.
Despite the problems at halfway houses, Blackwell and Steve Mullins, Gov. Mary Fallin's general counsel, have questioned whether the Corrections Department is following the law by failing to send more offenders to halfway houses, the Tulsa World reported Tuesday.
Emails released in November by Fallin’s office show that on March 5 last year, Avalon representatives met with staff members for Fallin and accused the Corrections Department of breaking the law by not placing enough offenders nearing release in halfway houses.
Massie told Oklahoma Watch in December that many offenders who would otherwise be eligible to go to halfway houses were not sent there because of public safety concerns, which is an exception written into the law.