- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A melee that left two prison inmates dead was a battle between blacks and American Indians sparked by a spitting incident three days earlier, a prison official said yesterday.

The two inmates involved in the incident Friday fought in a recreation yard of the Oklahoma State Reformatory Monday afternoon, and the fight quickly grew into a brawl involving convicts with homemade knives, said Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

“It looks like the two inmates initiated a fight, a couple more jumped in and then it broke out into a larger fight,” Mr. Massie said. “That’s when it broke down with combatants along racial lines.”

The entire facility, located about 140 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, remained locked down yesterday, with inmates confined to their cells, as officials searched common areas and cells for weapons and contraband.

Guards managed to quell the battle within minutes, but it left two inmates dead and a dozen others injured. The dead were identified as Larry J. Morris, 24, and Tyrone W. Miller, 23.

Both victims were black. A preliminary investigation by state Medical Examiner’s Office shows they died from stab wounds.

One of those killed was involved in the initial fight, but Mr. Massie said he did not know which, or who did the spitting. The other inmate in the original fight is Indian, officials said.

Eight inmates were transported to hospitals, and five of them remained hospitalized yesterday, at least one in serious condition. In addition, four other inmates were treated at the prison’s medical unit. Names of the injured were not released.

No guards or prison staff were injured, authorities said.

The inmates waited until Monday to settle Friday’s spitting dispute because they didn’t want to disrupt the prison’s visitation day over the weekend, Mr. Massie said.

“Because visitation was going to be occurring that weekend, they decided they would wait,” Mr. Massie said. “I suspect that there was some anticipation that something was going to happen.”

Makeshift weapons, including knives, were used in the fighting. Mr. Massie said the purpose of the investigation is to develop information for a possible criminal case, but that it would be up to District Attorney John Wampler to file any charges.

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, and its prison system is chronically overcrowded and understaffed.

Scott Barger, an official with the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, which represents state employees including corrections officers, said prisons across the state are chronically understaffed because of low pay and high turnover among prison guards. “It’s a ticking time bomb,” he said.

The department did not characterize Monday’s violence as a riot, reserving this term for use only when inmates assault staff, try to escape or destroy property.