NORMAN — Forty years ago, a pent-up rage among inmates at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester erupted in murderous violence.
On July 27, 1973, “Big Mac,” 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. Gov. 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.
The riot: Earlier in the year, prisoners organized a three-day hunger strike protesting poor health care, racial discrimination and censorship of mail, according to “History of Corrections in Oklahoma.”
Nineteen violent deaths and 40 stabbings occurred in the three years preceding the riot.
Lionel Johnson, now 71, worked inside the penitentiary for two years, supervising inmate cooks, when the violence erupted.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “Looked out the door and everyone was running every which way.”
According to news reports, several inmates 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.