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 disputeAt 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. One inmate had a golf club; others had stashed broken broom handles in their dormitory. By 10:30 p.m., the prison was in the control of inmates. Some refused to return to their cells. Others began moving their personal belongings outside in hopes of saving them from the destruction inside. Other inmates offered to fight back in hopes of freeing some of the guards, McGee said. "I told them we didn’t want no bloodbath,” McGee said. "We were outnumbered, and they had all the weapons. I just told the other officers not to try anything and to cooperate.” As the night stretched into the next day, McGee talked to the group’s leader, Albert "Butch” Frew, about releasing some of the hostages. Russell Maine, who worked for 17 years at Mack Alford, was the first to be released after being held for less than an hour. "The inmates swarmed us,” said Maine, 76. "It got a little touchy. But if it hadn’t been for Butch Frew it might have been worse. He separated us from the inmates and told them to leave us alone. I think he knew it would be worse for him if we got hurt.” For three days, McGee didn’t sleep. He exercised to stay alert and was keenly aware of everything going on around him. "I just had to keep concentrating on what to do next,” McGee said. "I had to think about every word that came from my mouth and think about how the inmates might hear it.” During the standoff, Frew and McGee came to an understanding. As McGee was being released, and a few officers remained hostages, Frew assured McGee the men would not be harmed. Handing the knife over to McGee, Frew kneeled before him. "He said, ‘All I can give is my word’” McGee recalled. "They were tired, and I think they knew they were in over their head.” Frew and his gang traded McGee’s freedom for cigarettes, pop and ice cream. The standoff ended by mid-morning the next day after snipers perched on prison walls and the prison’s power was shut off. Frew, who was serving time for burglary and attempting to escape from a prison, was sentenced to an additional 130 years for his role in the riot. Frew, 61, remains incarcerated at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Returning to the jobAfter a few weeks off work, McGee returned to the same prison where he had been held captive. Officials estimate 45 inmates took part in the riot. Most were sent to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. During the riot, some inmates waited to be transferred. Others stayed at Mack Alford, eating the sparse food available to them — peanut butter and maple syrup sandwiches. When McGee returned to work, some inmates thanked him. "I’ll never forget it. Every culture — blacks, whites, Muslims — formed a single line out in the yard and shook my hand,” McGee said. "They apologized to me, and said, ‘Please don’t take it out on us.’ I was bitter about going back to work until then. That showed me that they respected me.”