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.
But even though the services at the penitentiary lack the extras typically associated with funerals on the outside, the prison makes certain each inmate is given proper burial rites.
“When a grave is prepared, I’ll have a service before the burial,” said prison chaplain Tom Logan, who has handled interments here since he arrived in 2011. “We’ll sing a hymn like ‘Amazing Grace.’
“It’s very respectful. We respect the fact this person died in prison,” Logan said.
Without additional documents or plot records, it is often difficult to tell who or why someone is buried here — one tombstone from 1949, for example, is inscribed with, “Baby of Amile Wind.”
As former Oklahoma inmate David Paul Hammer recalled in his 2004 prison memoir, “The Final Escape,” looking at the cemetery from the vantage point of his cell, his mind was often flooded by two feelings: “utter sadness” and “agonizing fear — fear that I too will end up buried in Peckerwood Hill.”
“With my sentences, there is little to no hope that I will ever leave prison alive,” wrote Hammer, who is now among federal death row prisoners in Indiana.
Viewed with derision by some inmates, at Peckerwood Hill the prison system tries to give those die in custody the very thing they may not have earned while they were alive: dignity.
“We treat them with respect,” said Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie. “It’s something we strive for. The fact they are convicts doesn’t change anything.”