The Norman Transcript

Local news

July 28, 2013

Oklahoma State Penitentiary still open after violent events on July 27, 1973

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.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
Local news
  • Nova Pettigrew Music community bands together to raise money for 2-year-old’s battle with rare form of cancer

    Two-year old Nova Pettigrew was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer six weeks ago. Her father, former Deli sound technician and musician James Pettigrew, noticed something was wrong when running turned to walking, then limping, then ...

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • Coaches Luncheon Mixon question off-limits at coaches luncheon

    Toby Rowland addressed the elephant in the room even before Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel arrived Wednesday at Journey Church....

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • Mixon will not participate in practice

    Preseason practice begins for Oklahoma today. Freshman running back Joe Mixon will not be there. The school announced the decision Wednesday night....

    July 31, 2014

  • Sales tax-free weekend set to begin this weekend

    When stores open Friday morning, shoppers may be waiting. Oklahoma’s annual sales tax holiday is slated to run this weekend with the special exemption beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Friday and ending at midnight on Sunday....

    July 31, 2014

  • Deputies cleared, return to work

    Two deputies involved in a deadly shooting earlier this month are expected to return to work today after being cleared by the Cleveland County District Attorney’s Office. “They (the Sheriff’s Office) gave me their investigation, I ...

    July 31, 2014

  • Felonies filed

    The following people were charged with felony counts in the Cleveland County Court Clerk’s Office: · Randall Lee Sherrill, 34, possession of juvenile pornography · Dewey Leon Kinsey, 37, possession of controlled dangerous ...

    July 31, 2014

  • Police log

    Police responded to the following incidents Tuesday: · 12:14 a.m. burglary report, 3000 block of Pheasant Run Road · 5:58 a.m. larceny report, 3900 block of Journey Parkway · 6:52 a.m. larceny report, 2600 block of ...

    July 31, 2014

  • Candle ruled as cause of house fire

    Slaughterville Fire Department extinguished a structure fire seconds after responding to the call around 2:50 p.m. Wednesday at 10701 Maguire Road....

    July 31, 2014

  • Sam Noble museum welcomes Oklahoma Storytellers

    From Sept. 19-21, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History visitors can share their museum experiences with StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to recording, preserving and sharing stories of people from all ...

    July 31, 2014

  • Nova Pettigrew Deli plans benefit Thursday night for young cancer patient

    Two-year old Nova Pettigrew was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer six weeks ago. Her father, former Deli sound technician and musician James Pettigrew, noticed something was wrong when running turned to walking, then limping, then crawling.
    Pettigrew had never heard of RMS, a rare form of cancer that affects nerves and has hampered Nova’s ability to move, but almost immediately, when doctors at OU Children’s Hospital started intense rounds of chemo, he quit his job to be by his daughter’s side.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo