Guards fired warning shots to break up weekend fight at Oregon’s biggest prison


A weekend fight involving dozens of prisoners at the state’s largest prison prompted security officials to fire back-to-back warning shots in a recreation yard and sent a portion of the prison into lockdown, corrections officials said.

Nearly 240 men were in one of the three recreation yards at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario when a fight broke out Saturday afternoon between two of them, Oregon Department of Corrections spokesperson Amber Campbell said.

The two were removed from the yard and a larger fight between nearly 70 other prisoners ensued, she said.

Corrections officers verbally ordered the men to stop “the aggressive behavior,” she said. An officer then fired a single shot into a designated pit in the yard. The brawl continued, prompting the officer to fire a second warning, which broke up the fight.

The agency notified the Oregon State Police, which reviewed the fight and turned the matter back to the Department of Corrections for an internal administrative investigation. Corrections officials opened an internal security review of the firing of warning shots, Campbell said.

The shots are an unusual occurrence in Oregon prisons and earlier this year came under criticism from some prisoners who objected to a new sign that reminded them that warning shots weren’t required before officers use deadly force.

The prisoners involved on Tuesday remained in segregation while the investigation continues, Campbell said.

No staff member or prisoner was seriously hurt, she said. The prison houses about 3,000 men and is near the Idaho border.

Warning shots are infrequent at Oregon’s prisons.

Data provided by the agency shows corrections staff have fired a total of 17 between 2010 and 2023. The weekend’s incident brings the total to 19.

The majority – 11 – have occurred at Snake River, including the two over the weekend; five at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem; and three at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.

Together with Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, the prisons are the only institutions designed with guard towers overlooking recreation yards.

The security staff in the towers, as well as those on tactical teams or assigned to monitor the exteriors of the buildings, are armed.

Agency policy allows corrections officers to fire shots to disrupt a riot or prevent escape or the potential loss of life.

The shots are intended to “basically alert the population that whatever incident is going on needs to stop right away,” said Rob Persson, an assistant corrections director.

Earlier this year, the department made plans to post metal signs at the recreation yards of four prisons as a reminder to prisoners that warning shots aren’t required before an officer uses deadly force.

The signs read: “Warning — staff are authorized to use lethal force. Warning shots are not required.” The state spent about $5,300 on 100 bilingual signs; most never went up.

In February, the agency’s executive director, Mike Reese, shelved the idea and told his staff to investigate how other states handle such warnings, Persson said.

“Signs are good but sometimes they get lost on a wall so what would be more meaningful,” Persson said.

At least one prisoner group had pushed back on the plan to post the signs.

In a letter to Reese in February, Robert Langley compared the signs to “the harm caused by breathing in secondhand smoke.”

Langley is president of the Lifers’ Unlimited Club for prisoners serving life sentences at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Langley, 64, was convicted in 1989 for killing Anne L. Gray, 39, and Larry R. Rockenbrant, 24, in separate attacks 34 years ago. Rockenbrant’s body was found buried in a cactus garden on the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital where Langley was a patient; he had received permission to plant the garden as a way to relax.

He told Reese that the signs deepen the inhumanity of prison. He told Reese he worried prisoners and the professionals who guard them “will inhale their message and become sick by reducing the value we see in each other.”

Langley wrote that if prisoners “believe they will be killed (without warning) for fighting on the yard, they will no longer fight on the yard” and may move their conflicts to indoor recreation areas where “there is less security and the conflict is much more likely to spread.”

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