LAWTON, Okla.—Thousands of inmates file lawsuits against their prison every year. Most who sue without a lawyer are unceremoniously dismissed without much legal back-and-forth.
Michael Leatherwood, an inmate in a private prison in Oklahoma, is an exception. He's gotten notably further with his lawsuit, which alleges that inmates at his prison, the Lawton Correctional Facility, are being charged far higher rates for food and other items at the prison commissary than inmates at public prisons.
Earlier this year, Leatherwood, acting as his own lawyer, questioned his own prison warden in a deposition—something legal experts say is very rare. Now, as a judge considers whether to allow the lawsuit to go forward as a class action, almost 100 other inmates at the prison have flooded her docket with letters requesting to join as plaintiffs.
While debate over private prisons has rightly focused on issues like violence and prisoners' lack of medical treatment, lower-level concerns like the commissary—where they can buy food, toiletries, and other items—are also a big deal for inmates. Being able to afford a snack can make life behind bars a little more tolerable. “What they’re doing here is probably occurring in private prisons all across the country,” Leatherwood told me in a phone interview from the prison. “I think it’s flat-out wrong.”
The Lawton Correctional Facility, which houses up to 2,682 inmates, is the largest prison in Oklahoma and one of the top 10 largest private prisons in the country. It's run by the GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the U.S. The prison's bleak, squat buildings are stuck between farm fields on a dusty road outside of Lawton, a small city in the southwest corner of the state.
Before he got to Lawton, “I didn't even know there was such a thing as a private prison,” Leatherwood said. He pled guilty to raping his wife in 2009, and was sentenced to 19 years. For most of the six years he's been incarcerated at Lawton, he's worked at the prison's law library, learning about the legal system and helping other inmates on everything from filing their appeals to responding in divorce proceedings.
Many of the inmates who had been transferred to Lawton from the state's severely overcrowded public prisons, he said, complained to him about the higher prices in the commissary. Leatherwood started to study the issue, filing open records requests to get the commissary menus for public prisons. “I looked at them and compared them, and I realized, yeah, some of the processes were very much out of whack,” he said.
Last July, he filed a lawsuit in federal court, suing several prison officials and Keefe Commissary Network, the company contracted to operate the prison commissary, for allegedly inflating prices. (Keefe has contracts to operate commissaries at more than 800 prisons around the country.) His argument is that because Oklahoma inmates are arbitrarily placed into private prisons instead of public prisons, charging private prison inmates substantially more than public prison inmates is a violation of his constitutional right to equal protection.
For example, the exact same cup of chili noodle ramen soup costs 60 cents at Lawton and just 28 cents at Joseph Harp Correctional Center, a state-run prison, according to documents Leatherwood filed in the lawsuit. The exact same three ounce bag of coffee costs $3.45 at Lawton and $1.96 at the public prison.
A difference of 32 cents or $1.49 may not sound like much, but many inmates who work prison jobs make less than $1 an hour. Leatherwood gets money from his family—they also paid for the fees to file the lawsuit and transcribe the deposition—but that's not the case for most other inmates. “The majority of the inmates here don’t have that luxury," he said. "They receive very little money, if any, from their family, and a lot of times it’s from families who can’t afford to be sending much.”
In addition, Leatherwood alleges that inmates at Lawton have far less variety in the choice of items they can buy. Commissary items that are sold at public facilities and not Lawton include, according to the menus he's obtained: beard trimmers, ice buckets, clock radios, reading lights, jeans, whole milk, bottled water, grapefruit juice, cranberry juice, frozen foods, and cream cheese.
His lawsuit culminated in the deposition earlier this year. On May 12, Leatherwood crowded into a visitors room at the prison with his warden, Hector Rios, along with two lawyers and a certified court reporter. He was dressed in his blue prison jumpsuit. Everyone else was in suits.
“I felt out of place, of course, walking into that setting,” Leatherwood told me. Rios didn't seem happy to be there, either: “When he sat down, he gave me an extremely stern look,” Leatherwood remembered.
According to the deposition transcript, Leatherwood grilled Rios about the prices over the next two hours. He learned that the facility gets a 12% cut from all commissary sales, which Rios said was used to buy things like sports equipment for inmates. In a separate deposition with Leatherwood, Michael Berg, an assistant warden, said he thought the prison received about $17,000 a month for its 12% of the commissary purchases.
Leatherwood showed Rios a 2013 contract between Keefe and the GEO Group stating that the commissary prices would be kept “low and comparable to Oklahoma Department of Corrections commissary pricing.” When Leatherwood pointed out the 131% price disparity for ramen, which Rios said he hadn't known about, Rios said, "That is a concern. That is a concern.” Rios admitted that the high prices could "absolutely" be a disturbance to the facility.
The deposition also offered a rare look into the closed-off world of how private prisons work. For example, Rios said that he had banned sugary commissary items like Frosted Flakes, instant oatmeal, and honey buns because inmates had used the sugar in them to brew moonshine alcohol. “We made the decision to remove some of these items that were causing the alcohol that we were finding,” Rios said. “These are some of the items that had a lot of sugar on them… I know for a fact a big issue was the honey bun.”
At one point in the deposition, Rios, whose patience seemed to be wearing thin, talked about the tense security situation in the prison. Leatherwood asked him if he had seen the contracts managing the commissary. “Prior to this, no, I have not. Okay?” Rios responded. “My main focus, my main focus here was everybody's safety. We were going from lockdown to lockdown to lockdown. We were having inmates getting stabbed. This is nothing of my focus. My focus was your safety and everybody else's safety. That was my focus here. Okay? That was my focus. My focus was not about a commissary list. My focus was to keep people safe in here, to keep my staff safe, to keep all the inmates safe.” (The violence in the prison has been documented in local media.)
The lawyer representing Rios declined to comment on the case. Rios’ secretary referred questions to the GEO Group, which did not respond to a request for comment. The Keefe Commissary Network also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Daniel Manville, a Michigan State University law professor and an expert on prisoner litigation, said he couldn't think of any other case where a prisoner without a lawyer had managed to depose his or her own warden. “It’s very unusual,” Manville said. “Most inmates don’t have the resources or ability to set something like that up.”
After reviewing some of the lawsuit materials, he said Leatherwood had done an "excellent job." Steve Plumtree, the court reporter who transcribed the deposition for Leatherwood, said he was also impressed. “Usually court reporters run screaming from working for people who represent themselves. It usually turns into chaos,” Plumtree said. “Michael represented himself well and it felt to me like he was an attorney.”
The defendants have all filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, and Leatherwood has a week and a half left to respond. If Judge Robin Cauthron lets the lawsuit go forward, she will then decide whether to approve a class action and appoint a lawyer to represent the inmates.
The outpouring of inmate support for the lawsuit is probably in Leatherwood's favor. In the last month, dozens of inmates have sent letters to the judge requesting to be added to the lawsuit, according to court records. Some are handwritten missives in block letters or careful cursive—David Mitchell, one inmate who lived in state prisons before coming to Lawton, wrote that he's "seen first hand the outrageous prices between the facilities and feel like LCF is making prey of their residents through the commissary." Other inmates sent in typewritten form letters. (Leatherwood says he’s given inmates his case number when they ask about his lawsuit but hasn’t organized any effort to get people to send letters).
Manville, the Michigan State professor, said that the show of support from the inmates would give the judge more incentive to certify the class or at least appoint a lawyer. “Those letters indicate that there is something wrong and there's people out there who are interested in doing something about it,” he said.
Here's Leatherwood's motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the prison from charging higher prices—it includes the deposition transcripts in full:
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.