McALESTER — 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 state Corrections Department.
Signs of trouble
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 problems, 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 also had 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.”
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.