Oklahoma Watch: Deadly 1973 prison riot engulfed 'Big Mac'

Oklahoma Watch: Although “Big Mac” 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 the prison and reinforced claims in a lawsuit that eventually brought reforms to the state Corrections Department.
BY SHAUN HITTLE Modified: July 28, 2013 at 12:35 am •  Published: July 28, 2013
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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 (being held) 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

After 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.

Scars remain

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 said.


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