Oklahoma State Penitentiary
|Security class||maximum to medium|
|Managed by||Oklahoma Department of Corrections|
The Oklahoma State Penitentiary is a prison of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections located in McAlester, Oklahoma, on 1,556 acres (6.30 km2). Opened in 1908 with 50 inmates in makeshift facilities, today the prison holds more than 900 male offenders, the vast majority of which are maximum-security inmates.
Construction and early years
Before Oklahoma became a state in 1907, felons convicted in Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory were sent to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas. At statehood, Kate Barnard became Oklahoma Commissioner of Charities and Corrections. During the summer of 1908, Barnard arrived unannounced at the Kansas prison to investigate widespread complaints she had received about mistreatment of Oklahoma inmates. She took a regular tour with other visitors first, then identified herself to prison officials and asked that she be allowed to conduct an inspection of the facility. Barnard discovered systematic, widespread torture of inmates.
Upon her return to Oklahoma, Barnard recommended that all Oklahoma inmates be removed from the Lansing facility and returned to the state. Governor of Oklahoma Charles N. Haskell supported Barnard's proposal, and within two months of Barnard's visit to Kansas, on October 14, 1908, two groups of 50 offenders each were sent by train to McAlester. The inmates were temporarily housed in the former federal jail in the town. Under direction from Warden Robert W. Dick, they built a stockade to house themselves on a 120 acres (0.49 km2) plot northwest of McAlester, which was donated to the state by a group of McAlester citizens.
The remaining Oklahoma inmates in Lansing were moved to the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth until the state could build adequate facilities to house them all. The next spring, in 1909, the Oklahoma Legislature appropriated $850,000 to build the permanent facility.
Construction began in May 1909 on a prison designed after the Leavenworth facility. The state purchased about 1,556 acres (6.30 km2) surrounding the original plot of land. Using prison labor, the West Cellhouse and Administration Building were completed first; the Rotunda and East Cellhouse came later. The steep hills and grades required more than 6,250 cubic yards (4,780 m3) of concrete and more than 2,000,000 cubic yards (1,500,000 m3) of rocks and soil to be moved for the prison's walls alone. The F Cellhouse was added in 1935, and later the New Cellhouse was constructed. A shoe manufacturing plant and a tailor shop were part of the prison's inmate industry program, designed to provide work for offenders; at Lansing, prisoners were forced to work in the local mines, a practice Barnard banned. The Warden's House, across the street from the prison, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Female prisoners were sent to Kansas in territorial days also. The first females brought back from Kansas stayed in a ward near the East Gate, built in 1911, on the fourth floor of the West Cellhouse. The female population had grown to 26 by the time a separate building about 1 mile (1.6 km) west of the main institution was completed in 1926.
The first prison escape (from behind the walls) occurred on January 19, 1914. Three inmates stole a gun and killed three prison employees and a federal judge during the escape attempt. The convicts were later killed behind a rock ledge located on a ridge overlooking a wagon road.
Riots and lawsuits
By the early 1970s, advocacy groups warned the state government that the situation was becoming dire.
On July 27, 1973, trouble began in the prison's mess hall, reportedly by five inmates who, according to a prison spokesman, "were doped up on something." It quickly spread through the rest of the facility. At the end of the riot, three days later, three inmates were dead, 12 buildings were burned, and 21 inmates and guards had been injured. Damage was estimated at $30 million.
A federal court in 1978 found conditions at OSP unconstitutional. The lawsuit, filed by one inmate before the riot, was changed to a class action suit after the riot. U.S. District Judge Luther Bohannon put the Department of Correction under federal control. The last issue of the lawsuit, medical care for offenders, was settled 27 years later, in 2001.
Consequent to the court's orders, four new housing units were built at OSP, and in 1984 the aging East and West Cellhouses were closed. In 1983, all female inmates were moved to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in Oklahoma City.
On December 17, 1985, the inmates became disruptive, then gained control and took five employees as hostages on A and C units. Three of the hostages were seriously injured before their release the next day. The disturbance caused more than $375,000 in damage and two of the hostages were permanently disabled. After this incident, security was overhauled at the prison to reduce inmate movements, limit recreation, and institute a level-ranking system for offenders to improve safety.
The Talawanda Heights Minimum Security Unit was opened outside the East Gate Area in October 1989 to house inmates who hold support jobs inside the facility. In 1992, a special-care unit opened to provide mental health care to offenders, reducing the need for psychiatric hospitalization outside the prison. A medium security unit with a capacity of 140 inmates is located on G and I units to help prisoners adjust to a lower security classification.
Another addition to the prison, H Unit, houses inmates under both administrative and disciplinary segregation. H Unit is also the site of Oklahoma's death row and the state's lethal injection death chamber.
Between 1915 and 2009, Oklahoma executed a total of 170 men and 3 women.
Since 1940, except for a handful of years during World War II and during the 1970s inmate uprising, OSP has held a prison rodeo. A two-day event held in August, or on Labor Day weekend (accounts differ), the rodeo is a joint venture between the city of McAlester and the state Department of Corrections. The McAlester Chamber of Commerce contracts with the city to coordinate and market the event, which was not held in 2010 due to a state budget shortfall. Inmates from several prisons throughout the state compete. Attendance at the 12,500-seat arena is down in the 2000s from the 65,000 who routinely attended during a four-day version of the event in the 1960s. The animal-rights group PETA has denounced the rodeo on grounds of animal cruelty.
Use in popular culture
The prison was mentioned in:
- The Grapes of Wrath and in the song "The Ballad Of Tom Joad", which was based on the book
- The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, a nonfiction book by John Grisham
- Dirty White Boys, a fiction book by Stephen Hunter
- Clayton Lockett (Executed on April 29, 2014)
Timothy McVeigh ( Executed On June 11, 2001
- Wise, Karen (2003-12-17). "Oklahoma Prison History". A Census Guide to Oklahoma's Poor Farms, Orphanages, Sanitariums and Institutions. Archived from the original on 2007-02-26. Retrieved 2009-05-23.
- "Chapter I: The Beginning". The 20th Century History. Oklahoma Department of Corrections. 2002-12-13. Retrieved 2009-05-24.
- "Facility Recognition". Inside Corrections. Oklahoma Department of Corrections. September 1997. Archived from the original on 2005-11-24. Retrieved 2009-05-24.
- Mann, Lee (September 1996). "Oklahoma State Penitentiary From the Beginning". Inside Corrections. Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Archived from the original (reprint) on 2005-11-24. Retrieved 2009-05-24.
- Curtis, Gene (2007-07-21). "Big Mac prison riot cost lives, millions" (pdf). Tulsa World. p. A4. Retrieved 2009-05-23.
- Brooks, Les (2007). "McAlester Prison Riot". Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. Retrieved 2016-02-23.
- "Chapter VI: Disturbances". The 20th Century History. Oklahoma Department of Corrections. 2002-12-13. Retrieved 2010-010-03. Check date values in:
- "Death Row". Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Retrieved 2009-05-23.
- "The Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo". WashingtonPost.com, September 6, 2005 (slide show)
- Schwartzman, Paul. "Ride 'em, Convict! At the Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo, Inmates Bust Loose", The Washington Post, September 6, 2005, p. C01. Archived 2010-10-03 at WebCite.
- Stephens, Karen. "Prison Rodeo Furloughed for 2010". McAlester Chamber of Commerce press release, February 1, 2010. Archived 2010-10-03 at WebCite.
- Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo (official site). Archived 2010-10-03 at WebCite.
- Oklahoma State Penitentiary - Oklahoma Department of Corrections
-  Offenders - Death Row