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Pictures from the 1973 McAlester Prison Riot

by Graham Lee Brewer Published: March 5, 2014
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I was digging through the Oklahoman archives not too long ago looking for pictures from the 1973 McAlester Prison Riot (yeah, that’s what I do in my free time. I’m a nerd), and I came across some really impressive photos.

In this July 1973 photo provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, a fire burns inside the gate at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester in McAlester, Okla., during one of the most destructive prison riots in American history. The prison erupted into violence on July 27, 1973, the result of overcrowding, inadequate supervision, poor health care and a culture of violence within the prison walls. The prison was eventually rebuilt as a maximum security prison. (AP Photo/Oklahoma Department of Corrections) ORG XMIT: OKSO213
In this July 1973 photo provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, a fire burns inside the gate at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester in McAlester, Okla., during one of the most destructive prison riots in American history. The prison erupted into violence on July 27, 1973, the result of overcrowding, inadequate supervision, poor health care and a culture of violence within the prison walls. The prison was eventually rebuilt as a maximum security prison. (AP Photo/Oklahoma Department of Corrections) ORG XMIT: OKSO213

The riot lasted three days, with inmates taking control of several buildings in the maximum security facility.

MCALESTER PRISON RIOT: Gutted buildings in the state prisons industrial complex still smolder after inmate takeover of the prison.
MCALESTER PRISON RIOT: Gutted buildings in the state prisons industrial complex still smolder after inmate takeover of the prison.

The riot was the most destructive and costly in the state’s history.

MCALESTER PRISON RIOT: Gutted buildings in the McAlester State Prisons industrial complex are shown after inmate takeover of the prison.
MCALESTER PRISON RIOT: Gutted buildings in the McAlester State Prisons industrial complex are shown after inmate takeover of the prison.
In the end, two dozen buildings were destroyed. The estimated costs of the damages was over $20 million.

PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: One of the injured is removed from prison grounds on a stretcher. Staff Photo by Don Tullous. Original photo taken 07/28/1973, published 07/29/1973 in The Daily Oklahoman E. ORG XMIT: OKC1307251029023396
PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: One of the injured is removed from prison grounds on a stretcher. Staff Photo by Don Tullous. Original photo taken 07/28/1973, published 07/29/1973 in The Daily Oklahoman E. ORG XMIT: OKC1307251029023396

Three inmates also died over the course of the riot. However, this Oklahoman article from 1973 suggests there may have been four total deaths.

PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: But Saturday afternoon, the mood changed as Guardsmen joined prison guards in regaining control. Staff Photo by Jim Argo. Original photo taken 07/28/1973, published 7/29/1973 in The Daily Oklahoman       ORG XMIT: OKC1307251028543388
PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: But Saturday afternoon, the mood changed as Guardsmen joined prison guards in regaining control. Staff Photo by Jim Argo. Original photo taken 07/28/1973, published 7/29/1973 in The Daily Oklahoman ORG XMIT: OKC1307251028543388

Several correctional officers were taken hostage, and inmates and police had tense negotiations for their release.

PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: Guardsmen stand at the ready as negotiations continue in the rotunda. Staff Photo by Jim Argo. Original photo taken 07/28/1973, published 07/29/1973 in The Daily Oklahoman.
PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: Guardsmen stand at the ready as negotiations continue in the rotunda. Staff Photo by Jim Argo. Original photo taken 07/28/1973, published 07/29/1973 in The Daily Oklahoman.

Negotiations took place in the rotunda of the prison, which must have been a surreal set of circumstances.

PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: Unidentified inmate holds can of mace during state prison riot Friday. Staff Photo by Don Tullous. Original photo taken 07/27/1973, published 07/28/1973 in The Daily Oklahoman.
PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: Unidentified inmate holds can of mace during state prison riot Friday. Staff Photo by Don Tullous. Original photo taken 07/27/1973, published 07/28/1973 in The Daily Oklahoman.

The hostages were released unharmed within 24 hours of the start of the riot, which blazed on for two more days.

PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973:  STAFF PHOTO BY DON TULLOUS (Photo taken July 28, 1973) ORG XMIT: OKC1307251028273367
PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: STAFF PHOTO BY DON TULLOUS (Photo taken July 28, 1973) ORG XMIT: OKC1307251028273367

Oklahoma Watch did a great article last July for the 40th anniversary of the riot, which includes an interview with Lionel Johnson, who was one of the hostages. The Oklahoman’s Phil O’Connor interviewed our managing editor, Mike Shannon, about covering the riot as a young reporter.

PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: Staff Photo by Don Tullous. Original photo taken 07/28/1973, unpublished.     ORG XMIT: OKC1307251028303370
PENAL INSTITUTION / OKLAHOMA STATE PENITENTIARY / McALESTER PRISON RIOT 1973: Staff Photo by Don Tullous. Original photo taken 07/28/1973, unpublished. ORG XMIT: OKC1307251028303370

And, I just love this photo of officers resting on the warden’s front lawn, which is directly across from the prison’s front door. Look at those Pepsi cans!

For some more incredible pictures of those intense few days check out this Denver Post story. The Oklahoma History Society has a little more info on the riot online, as well.


by Graham Lee Brewer
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Graham Lee Brewer began his career as a journalist covering Oklahoma's vibrant music scene in 2006. After working as a public radio reporter for KGOU and then Oklahoma Watch he went on to cover the Oklahoma Senate for eCapitol before joining the...
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