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Guard Lewis McGee reforms prisons after Mack Alford Correctional Center riot

JULIE BISBEE, Capitol Bureau Published: August 2, 2009
STRINGTOWN — The eerie silence that fell over the prison first attracted Lewis McGee’s attention the day eight correctional officers were taken hostage by inmates at the Mack Alford Correctional Center.

The three-day riot that began May 13, 1988, was the last time state inmates would hold employees captive and cause millions of dollars of damage to a state prison.

McGee didn’t feel like coming in for his shift that began at 4 p.m. A few months earlier, McGee had purchased a life insurance policy, expecting the underlying current of unrest among prisoners to boil over. At the time of the riot, Mack Alford was bursting at the seams with inmates who had been unhappy about changes over the previous few months.

The night of the riot, McGee and seven other correctional officers were taken hostage by inmates wielding knives, homemade shanks and broom handles. Officers were escorted at knifepoint to cells and kept there while inmates broke windows, set fires and destroyed one dormitory. Some correctional officers were released within hours; others, like McGee, would remain locked in a cell for nearly three days with water but no food.

At times McGee feared for his life. He was the only black man held by inmates who claimed to be white supremacists. McGee survived and since the riot worked to make Oklahoma prisons safer.

He leaves a legacy’
McGee will retire Aug. 31 after 35 years with the state Corrections Department. He began working in the state’s prison facilities in southeast Oklahoma when he was 21.

"I’m just ready to do something else,” McGee said. "I’ve spent all my life working in a prison. I’m ready to give some of that time back to my family.”

McGee leaves behind a history of improving conditions for corrections officers and making the design of Oklahoma’s prisons safer.

"Lewis doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk,” said Dan Reynolds, who became the warden at Mack Alford shortly after the May 1988 riot.

Reynolds and McGee traveled to other states looking at prison designs in the months following the riot. The state stopped building prisons with dormitory style housing. Newer facilities now use a pod-system that cuts down on the number of inmates in one area and makes it easier for guards to maintain control. McGee also helped develop teams of officers who storm into an area like riot police to control or remove problem inmates.

"He leaves a legacy for his fellow officers at his facility,” Reynolds said.

Riot began as dispute
At 56, McGee is still an imposing figure. He’s stout and muscular. His shaved head and stern face can be intimidating. On the day of the riot, McGee said his ability to listen and stay calm helped him survive.

The riot began after a dispute between white and Muslim inmates. White inmates accused a Muslim inmate of stealing from another inmate’s cell. About 10 p.m., inmates began gathering weapons, according to McGee’s report on the incident.