McALESTER — Outside the whitewashed brick and concrete walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary is perhaps the loneliest place in the state — a paupers’ graveyard that’s the final resting place for hundreds of inmates who died with friends or families unable or unwilling to claim their bodies.
The cemetery is 100 years old this year and in line to be its newest tenant is Brian Darrell Davis, executed last month at age 39 for the death of his girlfriend’s mother. Before his death, Davis didn’t fill out the paperwork listing who should pick up his body. No one from his family came to witness his execution either.
There’s a saying among inmates: “Whatever you do, don’t bury me on Peckerwood Hill” — although the cemetery isn’t on a hill at all. It’s a relatively flat swath of ground with a patch of unkempt cedar trees. It’s ringed by farm property where, on a visit before Davis’ execution, a pair of horses roamed the green-yellow grass. A rusted oil well sat atop a hill overlooking the cemetery, a stack of hay bales on another.
The agency in charge of the cemetery tries to maintain a certain dignity for inmates who fear they will wind up here someday — death row inmates and those who die in the prison system from illnesses, old age or fights.
“It’s handled by the Department of Corrections, and that carries a certain responsibility,” says David Wortham, an assistant warden at the lower-security Jackie Brannon Correctional Center on the same grounds.
The cemetery opened in 1913, five years after the state penitentiary was built in McAlester, a town of around 19,000 residents in southeastern Oklahoma once known for its annual prison rodeo until state budget cuts shuttered the event in 2010, likely for good.
Located off a side road leading away from the 1,500-acre prison complex, the cemetery is easy to miss because the headstones are set into the ground to allow for easy groundskeeping. Where most cemeteries feature rows of headstones adorned with sprays of flowers, flags or stuffed toys, there are no similar symbols of remembrance here.