Records recount tumultuous melee at Snake River Correctional Institution

Snake River Correctional Institution outside Ontario. (FILE/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – A fight between two inmates at Snake River Correctional Institution last month escalated into one of the largest disturbances in recent times at the prison, according to records obtained by the Malheur Enterprise.

The Oregon Department of Corrections recently released more than 100 pages of documents about the disturbance as a result of a public records request.

They provide new details about an episode that put the prison in lockdown, required corrections officers to deploy pepper spray and sent two inmates to the hospital.

The Dec. 9 nighttime fight in Complex C of the prison eventually involved 37 inmates and required 37 corrections officers to quell.

The fight was contained in Unit C, a housing unit for 80 inmates. The arrival of a new inmate led Corrections Officer Brandon Kropp to report “an intangible sense of an increase in tension” among the inmates and a “change of tone on the unit,” according to an incident brief by Captain Robert Campbell.

Kropp moved to conduct a standard inmate count the evening of Dec. 9 when at 9:16 p.m. he radioed other prison workers that a fight had broken out.

“The incident began in the dayroom, when adult in custody (AIC) Torren Cooksey was verbally disrespectful to AIC Alec Imel,” according to Jennifer Black, communications manager with the Corrections Department. “The two men decided to resolve their issue with a one-on-one fight inside a cell. After they fought, other AICs on the unit did not agree that there was resolution to the fight and the larger fight ensued.” 

Cookey said in a recent letter to the Enterprise that was a “bum beef” – prison slang for a false charge – and the fight “could’ve been hours or even days before this spoken of disturbance.”

Cooksey said that the disturbance was really a gang fight between the WhiteBoys and the Paisas, two ethnic factions in the prison. 

Black confirmed that members of ethnic gangs participated in the fight.

Kropp estimated that 25 inmates were “actively fighting and not complying with staff directives to stop fighting and other AICs were joining in the fight,” an incident report recounted.

“The dayroom, in less than 20 seconds, quickly filled with people punching, kicking, some people falling, others standing, someone picked up a chair and used it to hit someone, another person broke part of a bookshelf and used that on another person’s head,” Imel said in a recent letter to the Enterprise. “A mixture of spilled coffee, from the mugs that were on top of the tables, and crimson blood painted the entire floor.”

Kropp gated the housing unit, and his backup, Sgt. James Kenyon, arrived with two teams of corrections officers. Within three minutes, the entire prison was put on lockdown. 

According to prison reports, almost immediately after the fighting began, the response teams began pepper spraying the inmates in short bursts. But Imel said that there was a significant lapse in time between when the officers arrived to the closed gate of the unit and when they began to try and break up the fight, during which many officers took out their phones to film the commotion.

Five officers in total deployed their pepper spray. At first, according to chemical agent deployment forms, the spray had “little to no effect.”

Lt. Mike Real reported that he then responded with what he described as “special munitions” and warned the fighting inmates they would be deployed.

Prison spokeswoman Amber Campbell clarified that “special munitions” refers to weaponry designed to “incapacitate, distract, and control a subject with less likelihood of life-threatening injury” – likely rubber or foam bullets.

The reports show that by 9:50 p.m., the officers had successfully quelled the fighting between inmates. 

“Several AICs were celebrating with each other, walking around and shaking hands with each other,” the incident report said.

“Many inmates already were laying on the ground bleeding profusely,” Cooksey wrote. “When everyone was on the ground, guards rushed in and started cuffing people up and taking them either to [disciplinary segregation] or the hospital.”

Inmates who hadn’t sustained visible facial injuries were filmed and their hands inspected for signs that they had been involved in the fight, like red or swollen knuckles. All of the inmates who had been exposed to the pepper spray were offered the chance to rinse their faces, change their clothes and take a shower.

One inmate was taken to the hospital and Cooksey soon followed after corrections officers found him with a badly injured face, according to the incident reports.

While inspecting cells, SRCI staff found Cooksey’s blood in a cell where he did not live, leading them to formulate their hypothesis about the origin of the fight.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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