10A ı SUNDAY JULY 28, 2013
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in Oklahoma,” a book that details aspects of the riot. The prison had also seen its share of violence, with 19 violent deaths and 40 stabbings occurring in the three years preceding the riot. Lionel Johnson, now 71, had been working inside the penitentiary for two years, supervising inmate cooks, when the violence erupted. He described a roughand-tumble atmosphere at the prison where fights were commonplace. On the day of the riot, though, it was clear something larger was happening. “I didn’t know what was
going on,” he said. “Looked out the door and everyone was running every which way.” According to various news reports, several inmates, who were drunk on 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. Forty years later, in his kitchen at his home in McAlester, Johnson makes a swift, cross-body motion with an imaginary knife in his hand, describing the stabbing death of
an inmate he witnessed.
Containment While fires burned buildings, and nearly two dozen prison staffers such as Johnson were taken hostage, Dale Nave, then a 31-year-old McAlester police officer, was finishing up his 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily shift. “I was just trying to go home,” said Nave, who, along with other officers, was sent to the prison down the road. As Nave pulled up, he saw fire and smoke and knew this “was not a little deal inside.” By the time he arrived, inmates at the prison were demanding a meeting with Gov. Hall. Outside the prison, Nave and a few other officers were tasked with standing guard, using the threat of firearms to keep inmates inside the prison.
The hand of an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper rests on the butt of his service revolver as inmates are pictured inside the prison gates during the riot. McAlester News-Capital file photo
McAlester News-Capital file photo by RANDY PRUITT
In the foreround, twisted steel and concrete chunks are left after a salvage ball begins work destroying buildings ravages by fire. “All we was trying to do was contain it,” Nave said. “There were thousands of them, and 15 or so of us.” Local police kept the inmates from leaving the prison until hundreds of reinforcement troops from the National Guard and other agencies arrived. Inmates set buildings ablaze, but otherwise, from the outside, it was difficult to tell what was going on inside. Johnson and other staff members tried to keep a low profile behind the gates. In his two years working at the prison, he had made friendships with some of the prisoners, having grown up with several. As violence and fires sprang up, his friends made sure he was safe. “It wasn’t really holding hostage. It was just a safe place to be,” Johnson said. “They (the inmates) saved us.” Hall and police negotia-
tors were able to secure the release of the hostages in less than 24 hours, although complete containment of the riot would take two more days.
Tear it Down Following the riot, Lawrence Carpenter, a consultant from the American Corrections Association, at the governor’s request, toured the facility, which was in ruins. In a written report, he called the uprising “unquestionably … the most destructive of any riot that has ever taken place in American prisons.” “From my observations it was clear that the riot at McAlester is one of the most disastrous events in American correctional history,” Carpenter said. Committees and task forces convened for years, with one common theme:
The prison should be torn down. “The McAlester facility should not be rebuilt,” read a 1973 recommendation from the National Clearinghouse for Criminal Justice Planning and Architecture. The report went on to recommend that the state “bulldoze remaining building elements at McAlester.” A federal lawsuit that had been filed in 1972 by Bobby Battle, an inmate at the penitentiary, led to a court finding that some conditions at the prison violated the U.S. Constitution, leading to implementation of a number of reforms. Despite the riot and recommendations that the prison be razed, it has endured for four decades, although the population has steadily declined from the levels seen in 1973, from well over 2,000 to fewer than 600.
DOC Director Justin Jones talks about state prison By JAMES BEATY SENIOR EDITOR
Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones had been ready to start his college studies when the 1973 riot at Oklahoma State Penitentiary erupted in a blaze of fire and violence. “I was getting ready to attend college at East Central,” Jones said, referring to East Central University in Ada. Although he didn’t live in the McAlester area and had not yet started his career with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, it still made a vivid impression on him. “I think it made an impression on most Oklahomans at the time,” Jones said. The riot turned out to be the costliest in American history, with most estimates stating the rampaging inmates caused more than $20 million in damage. None of the correctional officers who were held hostage during the riot were killed, although several were seriously injured. Jones had started out at ECU as an English major, but along the way became interested in sociology, which eventually led him to beginning his career with the DOC. “I was hanging out with vets, including my brother,” Jones said, referring to Vietnam War veterans, many of whom were attending ECU on the GI bill at the time. After completing college, Jones eventually began working with the DOC. As his career progressed, he looked more closely at the 1973 riot at OSP. “I had always been a student of correctional history,” Jones said. “It’s important to know who came before you.” Jones really began examining the 1973 OSP riot in depth when he became the DOC regional director for the Northeast Region. “I had supervision over multiple facilities,” Jones said. He wanted to see what he could learn from what had happened in the past. “You look at disturbances within the United States,” he said. In addition to the 1973 riot at OSP, Jones also looked at the 1985 riot at the prison as well as the 1988 riot at the Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown. He believes a number of factors led to the 1973 riot at OSP 40 years ago — including the large number of inmates
McAlester News-Capital file photo
Looking grim and tired, Warden Park Anderson stands on the steps of the gutted prison church and library at Oklahoma State Penitentiary to make a brief announcement that the “situation is in hand.”
McAlester News-Capital file photo
This armored personnel carrier was rushed to Oklahoma State Penitentiary during the riot, apparently in an attempt to quell the disturbance. Guardsman and highway patrolman can be seen on the ground, and on the walls in the foreground, awaiting orders.
McAlester Democrat file photo by GEORGE MINTER
National Guardsmen watch as the first of 653 inmates begin filing out of the prison yard at Oklahoma State Penitentiary and into their cellblocks after the 1973 riot. The inmates had been held in the yard for nearly a week while authorities waited for new cell locks to be installed. The inmates were stripped and searched for weapons and drugs before entering cellblocks that were extensively damaged during the riot. Inmates offered no resistance when ordered to line-up in groups of three to begin filing through the yard’s southern gate. jammed into the prison, some of whom were often out of their cells and able to move around behind the walls at the time. When looking at what he believes was the chief reason for the 1973 riot, Jones said, “The key was freedom of movement.” “You look at 2,000-plus offenders with a lot of freedom of movement — some had more freedom of movement than others,” Jones said. That, mixed with several other elements, contributed to the potent mix that blew at OSP on July 27, 1973. “You had a lot of freedom of movement of high-security inmates and a lot of security protocols that weren’t followed,” Jones said. Some offenders at the time had control over the movement of other offenders, according to Jones. Some were “almost assistants” to the correctional officers, he said. On the day the riot broke out, numerous inmates were out of their cells in different parts of the prison, Jones noted. That included inmates working operations behind the walls, at places such as the furniture factory and other facilities. Such freedom of movement for hundreds of inmates behind the walls at OSP has since changed. Other changes include a 23-hour lock-down for most inmates, enacted following a 1985 outbreak at the prison. Now, OSP has controlled movement of inmates, Jones said.
Since Jones became DOC director in October 2005, he’s enacted some changes at OSP, some of them fairly recent. “Since I’ve been director, we’ve closed the F and G units,” Jones said. He considered both units antiquated and has been moving toward housing inmates in cells with solid doors, as opposed to bars. “I think it will help with employee safety,” Jones said. One of the major changes to occur within the DOC in the years following the 1973 riot had been to change the intake procedure for inmates. Studies conducted after the riot included creation of what became known as the Master Plan. Prior to the riot, every single male inmate sentenced to a prison term in Oklahoma had been sent to OSP in McAlester for their initial assessments. Following the riot, that changed. Now, inmates who are coming into the system are sent to the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, where it’s determined where they will be sent to serve their sentences. “Lexington was important, because it moved the reception from OSP to Lexington,” Jones said. Jones has resigned as DOC director, effective Aug. 16. Future changes at the DOC are expected to be guided by his successor. One possibility of future change that Jones mentioned during a DOC Board meeting held at OSP last year regarded
the planned construction of a new administration building at the prison. The current administration building is where the main entrance to the prison is located and includes the offices of the warden, deputy warden and other prison officials. That leaves questions as to what would happen to the current administration building, which has historical significance, according to many experts. Jones said the DOC has been working with the Oklahoma Historical Center. Possibilities include eventually making it a museum. It’s also been well-used by film-makers, he noted. “We’ve never charged for that,” said Jones, but he indicated that might be considered by the DOC in the future. As for ways to reduce the likelihood of future riots or disturbances at OSP as well as other prisons in the state — or, as Jones phrased it, to have efficient operations and maximize employee safety — certain measures need to be followed. For one, always be sure security protocols are followed, he said. “Audit post orders,” Jones said, referring to follow-ups to make sure posted orders are adhered to by DOC staff. Also, make sure operating procedures are followed, he said. Staying current on technology is also important, according to Jones. For example, now there are numerous cameras inside the prison, which means security personnel can keep an eye on what’s happening at different areas throughout the facility, he noted. In the years following the 1973 riot at OSP, the DOC worked toward earning accreditation from the American Correctional Association and has met more than 400 standards required to earn the achievements. Since earning accreditation by the ACA, “We’ve never lost it,” Jones said. Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.