Associated Press

GRANITE, Okla. - An exercise yard melee that left two prison inmates dead and a dozen injured was a battle between blacks and American Indians and was sparked by one inmate spitting on another, a prison official said Tuesday.

The two inmates involved in the spitting incident fought in a recreation yard of the Oklahoma State Reformatory Monday afternoon, and the fight quickly grew, 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," Massie said. "That's when it broke down with combatants along racial lines."

The two men killed, both of whom were black, were identified as: Larry J. Morris, 24, and Tyrone W. Miller, 23. One of those killed was involved in the initial altercation, but Massie said he did not know which, or who did the spitting.

Morris was serving a five-year sentence out of Tulsa County for shooting with intent to kill. Miller was convicted in Oklahoma County of obstructing an officer, concealing stolen property and breaking and entering.

Eight other inmates were transported to area hospitals, and four were treated at the prison's medical unit. Three of the inmates transported to hospitals returned to the prison Tuesday, three were in fair condition and one was in stable, but serious, condition, Massie said. The condition of the fifth hospitalized inmate was unknown. The names of those injured were not released.

Massie said the spitting incident occurred on Friday, but the inmates waited until Monday to settle the dispute because they didn't want to disrupt the prison's visitation day, which was scheduled over the weekend.

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

The entire facility, located about 140 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, remained locked down on Tuesday, with inmates confined to their cells, as officials conducted a thorough search of common areas, yards and cells for weapons and contraband.

Massie said an initial search uncovered three homemade weapons -- a blade-like instrument and two "sticker-type" weapons that likely were made from fencing material.

"The weapons were found on top of the housing unit, where it looks like someone threw them up there," Massie said.

The initial fight broke out shortly after noon in a prison recreation yard and quickly spread to an adjacent yard. Prison guards rushed to the scene, ordered the inmates to the ground and they complied, Massie said. The entire incident was over in about five minutes.

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

Prisons across the state have been staffed for decades at between 70 to 75 percent of authorized staffing levels, said Mike Rogers, chairman of the DOC Council for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

Rogers, an 18-year DOC veteran, said prisons have a difficult time attracting and retaining workers because of low pay and benefits. Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to increase penalties and prison time for a wide range of non-violent offenses, causing the prison population to skyrocket.

"How much legislation was put forth to increase pay for state employees, there was none. Legislation to increase employee benefits, there was none," Rogers said. "But if you look at the amount of legislation put forward to increase incarceration time or make misdemeanors into felonies, it was triple digits.

"That tells you where the legislators' priorities are."