MCALESTER — Sonya Davis grew up with family ties to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
Many of her family members worked at the maximum-security prison in McAlester for years and she grew up to do the same.
"You just get used to it," she said. "Property taxes are cheaper here."
Davis, 50, of McAlester, worked as a correctional officer at the prison for a year. She still lives nearby and said she never wonders about the safety of her neighborhood.
Sometimes she'll even forget and leave one of her doors open, she said. Her thinking is that if someone wants to escape from the penitentiary, they'll travel as far away as they possibly can instead of terrorizing nearby residents.
"Most people around here don't think anything about it," she said, adding that most residents work at the prison.
She said there are also a lot of families who move next to the penitentiary to be close to their husbands while they're serving time.
If an inmate wants to escape, Davis said, he'll likely have a ride to pick him up. But as a safety precaution, she said she pays attention to any new faces in the neighborhood.
"I think we're more aware of who's walking down the road," she said.
Resident Malinda Dobson, 37, said she moved near the prison a few years ago with her husband Daniel and they haven't had any problems with the penitentiary.
She said police have had to search back behind their house in an alley once to find an escapee, but Dobson said she wasn't sure if the escape was from the penitentiary.
Jerry Massie, spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said there haven't been any escapes from the state's three maximum-security prisons in the last five years.
History of the penitentiary
Construction began on the penitentiary in 1908. Steve Adams, local historian and former correctional officer at the prison, said it started out as a stockade with electrified razor wire. He said they returned prisoners from Lansing, Kan., to house there.
Dale Cantrell, disciplinary hearing officer, said those inmates in 1908 helped build the 30-foot walls that are still intact today around the facility.
Another cell house was added in the 1930s and the first escape sign went up in 1951.
Adams said it read, "Beware of escaping convicts." The sign was later taken down.
Residents who grew up in McAlester are familiar with the history of the prison and know that an escapee will want to get away from the area right away, he said.
"The people who lived here all their lives, they're not one bit scared of the prison," Adams said.
Warden Randall G. Workman said the penitentiary has brought many jobs to McAlester over the years and continues to educate people about the prison system and Department of Corrections.
"It sort of represents the culture of the area," he said.
Living in Lexington
Herbie Engdahl, 74, has operated Engdahl's Auto Company in Lexington for nearly 55 years.
His life in Lexington predates the construction of the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in 1978. Like most residents of Lexington, Engdahl doesn't give much thought to having a prison in his town.
"I've never had a problem with it," he said. "We've never had any big problems as far as I know. You hear stories every now and then but I've been through the prison on a tour and it's a pretty up to date deal."
The Lexington Assessment and Reception Center was built on the site of the Lexington Regional Treatment Center, an old military installation acquired by the department in 1971, according to DOC's website.
The assessment and reception center is a maximum security unit that holds offenders recently sentenced by a judge. Staff members keep the offenders in this unit to decide which facility they should be assigned to.
Lexington Police Chief Deana Standridge agrees with Engdahl, but said sometimes visitors cause traffic problems around town.
"People come through here to visit their friends and family at the prison on Saturdays and Sundays," Standridge said. "It increases our traffic volume tremendously which increases the amount of people who keep us busy on the weekends."
Standridge said her department maintains an excellent relationship with the prison. She said any time she has had questions or concerns they have been addressed promptly. She said the few times there have been escapes inmates don't normally head toward town.
"I think there's been one time since I became chief in 2001 that one of them actually came into town after escaping and in that case we got them pretty quickly," she said.