By Shaun Hittle
OKLAHOMA CITY —
Forty years ago this month, a pent-up rage among inmates at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester erupted in murderous violence.
On July 27, 1973, “Big Mac,” as it’s commonly called, became a mini-hell of fire and black smoke, stabbing victims, beatings, hostages and looting. The National Guard and Oklahoma Highway Patrol were called in. The governor, David Hall, implored rioters to give up and met with some to hear their demands.
When the siege ended three days later, three inmates were dead, more than 20 people had been injured, and 24 buildings had been destroyed. Total damage was estimated at more than $20 million.
An outside consultant brought in by the governor to advise on how to rebuild the facility after the riot called the incident “one of the most disastrous events in American correctional history.”
The McAlester riot also highlighted issues that had been brewing for years behind the gates of the state’s oldest prison, built in 1908. Overcrowding, filthy and degraded facilities, untrained and low-paid guards, bad communication and other factors had combined to sow the seeds of the revolt.
Although the riot’s death toll was far short of the 39 who died in the Attica Prison riot in New York two years earlier, it gutted most of Big Mac and reinforced claims in a lawsuit that eventually brought reforms to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections
In the months and years leading up to the 1973 riot, signs of trouble at the prison were evident.
Earlier in the year, prisoners organized a three-day hunger strike protesting a wide variety of problems within the prison, including poor health care, racial discrimination, and censorship of mail, according to History of Corrections in Oklahoma, a book that details aspects of the riot.
The prison had also seen its share of violence, with 19 violent deaths and 40 stabbings occurring in the three years preceding the riot.
Lionel Johnson, now 71, had been working inside the penitentiary for two years, supervising inmate cooks, when the violence erupted.
He described a rough-and-tumble atmosphere at the prison where fights were commonplace. On the day of the riot, though, it was clear something larger was happening.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “Looked out the door and everyone was running every which way.”
According to various news reports, several inmates, who were drunk off homemade alcohol, collected long knives and stabbed two correctional officers. From there, the mayhem spread to the entire prison, with inmates taking prison employees hostage and using the public address system to announce a “revolution.”
Interactive timeline of the 1973 riot at the state penitentiary in McAlester
An inmate held a butcher knife to Johnson’s throat and took him to a cell along with several other prison staffers. The riot erupted around them.
Forty years later, in his kitchen at his home in McAlester, Johnson makes a swift, cross-body motion with an imaginary knife in his hand, describing the stabbing death of an inmate he witnessed.
While fires burned buildings, and nearly two dozen prison staffers such as Johnson were taken hostage, Dale Nave, a 31-year-old McAlester police officer, was finishing up his 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily shift.
“I was just trying to go home,” said Nave, who, along with the other officers, was sent to the prison down the road.
As Nave pulled up, he saw fire and smoke and knew this “was not a little deal inside.” By the time he arrived, inmates at the prison were demanding a meeting with Gov. Hall.
Outside the prison, Nave and a few other officers were tasked with standing guard, using the threat of firearms to keep inmates inside the prison.
“All we was trying to do was contain it,” Nave said. “There were thousands of them, and 15 or so of us.” Local police kept the inmates from leaving the prison until hundreds of reinforcement troops from the National Guard and other agencies arrived.
Inmates set buildings ablaze, but otherwise from the outside it was difficult to tell what was going on inside.
Johnson and other staff members tried to keep a low profile behind the gates. In his two years working at the prison, he had made friendships with some of the prisoners, having grown up with several. As violence and fires sprang up, his friends made sure he was safe.
“It wasn’t really holding hostage. It was just a safe place to be,” Johnson said. “They (The inmates) saved us.”
Hall and police negotiators were able to secure the release of the hostages in less than 24 hours, although complete containment of the riot would take two more days.
Tear it down
Following the riot, Lawrence Carpenter, a consultant from the American Corrections Association, at the governor’s request, toured the facility, which was in ruins.
In a written report, he called the uprising “unquestionably … the most destructive of any riot that has ever taken place in American prisons.”
“From my observations it was clear that the riot at McAlester is one of the most disastrous events in American correctional history,” Carpenter said.
Committees and task forces convened for years, with one common theme: The prison should be torn down.
“The McAlester facility should not be rebuilt,” read a 1973 recommendation from the National Clearinghouse for Criminal Justice Planning and Architecture. The report went on to recommend that the state “bulldoze remaining building elements at McAlester.”
A federal lawsuit that had been filed in 1972 by Bobby Battle, an inmate at the penitentiary, led to a court finding that some conditions at the prison violated the U.S. Constitution, leading to implementation of a number of reforms.
Despite the riot and recommendations that the prison be razed, it has endured for four decades, although the population has steadily declined from the levels seen in 1973, from well over 2,000 to fewer than 600.
Perhaps more than anyone else living, John and Dolly Barrier bear the scars of the prison uprising.
John Barrier, 75, was a corrections officer at the time and was seriously beaten by inmates during the riot. In the four decades since, he has suffered strokes and seizures and undergone brain surgeries as a result of his injuries, said his wife Dolly.
“We never had no life,” she said of the decades of care her husband has needed, listing the more significant medical events that have left her husband paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair at a McAlester nursing home.
Two years ago, Corrections Director Justin Jones visited John Barrier and presented him with a folded American flag that had flown in Barrier’s honor over the agency’s offices in Oklahoma City.
“We never want to forget those people,” Jones told Oklahoma Watch.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.