50 years ago: 1973 riot erupts at Oklahoma State Penitentiary
It took an army of law enforcement officers and National Guard troops to quell the riot, which is considered by many to be the most destructive riot in terms of property damage
By James Beaty
The Woodward News, Okla.
MCALESTER, Okla. — Fifty years ago on July 27, what some consider the most destructive riot in U.S. history, erupted at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
July 27, 1973, started as a regular day at the prison, but as it unwound, rampaging inmates took 22 hostages, consisting of everyone from correctional officers to Deputy Warden Sam Johnston.
As buildings blazed, black plumes of smoke rising from the burning structures could be seen from miles away.
A total of 35 individuals were injured during the riot, including OSP Correctional Officer John Barrier, the most seriously injured of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections employees.
Three inmates were confirmed killed during the riot by other prisoners, while another died of natural causes.
Other riots were deadlier and resulted in more injuries, but with 24 buildings destroyed and $22 million in damages, OSP is considered by many to be the most destructive in terms of property damage, said retired Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Dan Reynolds.
It took an army of law enforcement officers and National Guard troops to quell the riot, including Department of Corrections officers, McAlester Police, the Pittsburg County Sheriff’s Department, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, other law enforcement officers and the Oklahoma National Guard.
Inmates had several demands they wanted authorities to agree to before they released all of the hostages and brought the riot to an end.
They wanted the news media present when authorities came onto the prison grounds.
They also wanted a meeting with then-Oklahoma Gov. David Hall to hear their grievances. Hall did agree to meet with the inmates and he later honored that agreement.
Inmates also demanded total amnesty for the riot’s ringleaders.
All of the hostages were released by July 28, but the riot lagged on until Aug. 4, mainly because rioting inmates damaged the locks to many of the prison cells, so they had to remain outside on the prison grounds until they could be repaired.
A total of 35 individuals were injured during the riot, including OSP Correctional Officer John Barrier, the most seriously injured of the DOC employees.
“There were four officers who were assaulted at the outset of the riot,” said Reynolds, who’d been a teenager when the 1973 riot occurred.
Retired McAlester Police Officer George Scott had just started with the McAlester Police Department as a reserve officer. He was slated to become a regular officer after he replaced another officer who planned to leave and become an FBI agent in a couple of months.
“They made me a reserve police officer until then,” Scott said.
“I had been there only a few days,” he said. “I didn’t even have a uniform.”
Scott suddenly received orders to go to OSP with other officers after McAlester police were notified a riot was underway at the prison.
“I know the McAlester Police Department responded with from 18 to 20 officers,” Scott said.
They converged at the prison’s east gate and were ready to go inside the prison to help stop the riot, Scott recalled.
“Then we were told we couldn’t go behind the walls with our weapons,” Scott said.
At that point, one of the McAlester officers objected.
“He said ‘They have weapons,’” — a reference to the inmates, some of whom were armed with homemade prison knives called “shanks.” Inmates may have gained other weapons by breaking into storage areas or taking them from hostages, police reasoned.
Scott said the McAlester police officers were told Gov. Hall had ordered no law enforcement officers were to take weapons behind the walls.
Scott said the MPD saw no point in going behind the walls amongst rioting prisoners at that point if they couldn’t carry weapons to defend themselves.
They decided to station themselves on the other side of West Street, which runs adjacent to the prison grounds.
“We pulled back to West Street,” Scott said. At that point in the riot, there was still a very high concern that the inmates may crash out of the prison’s east gate and come pouring by the hundreds into the residential streets of McAlester.
Local police were determined not to let that happen.
Scott said the MPD officers at the site made a decision: “We’ll get them when they cross West Street.”
That never happened, as the inmates never crashed through the east gates, staying behind the prison walls for the riot’s duration.
Scott maintains if the McAlester police officers on the scene were allowed to go inside the prison with their weapons during the riot’s early stages, they could have stopped it before it spread any further.
Former OSP Warden Reynolds was a high school student from Norman who set out that July day in 1973 on what he thought would be a fun fishing trip — but events were about to change his plans.
“On Friday morning of July 27, a friend of mine, Dean Wilson, and I were going on a fishing trip to Lake Eufaula,” Reynolds said. “I turned on the radio and we heard there was a riot at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.”
Reynolds asked his friend if he wanted to make a side trip to McAlester while the riot was under way. He agreed and they forgot their fishing plans and headed toward OSP.
Reynolds didn’t know the prison’s exact location, but finding it proved to be no problem.
“We followed the smoke and went to the prison’s East gate,” Reynolds said. He could hardly believe no one stopped them as they drove up to the site and exited the Toyota he was driving.
“We were really surprised we were able to get so close,” Reynolds said. He had a 110 camera so he grabbed it and began snapping photos.
“There was smoke pouring out of buildings; helicopters flying above and National Guardsmen along the walls with M-16 rifles,” Reynolds said. “The National Guard was marching up to the East gate.”
Reynolds said he spent the whole afternoon at the site as the riot continued.
When the riot ended, much of the prison lay in smoldering ruins.
Although there was an initial discussion about tearing the prison down, the state made the decision to rebuild and recast it as a super-maximum facility.
Later, Reynolds began a career in corrections that led him back to OSP.
He served as the warden’s assistant to Gary Maynard from 1985-87. He also served as interim OSP warden when then-Warden James Saffle went overseas with the Oklahoma National Guard as part of Operation Desert Storm.
Reynolds then served as OSP warden from 1991-1994. He retired from the DOC in 2011, while serving as the DOC’s administrator of Community Corrections.
Reynolds has since has authored a number of books relating to OSP, the riot, and other prison facilities. What does he think people today should remember about the 1973 OSP riot?
“I would want them to remember the staff who were held hostage and injured, and the service of correctional officers, who serve 365 days a year, seven days a week,” Reynolds said.
“The public doesn’t see all of the good things they do, day in and day out,” said Reynolds. “They play a constant role in public safety.
“In my 31 years with the Department of Corrections, I came to have the utmost admiration and respect for the correctional officers.”
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