By James Beaty
Former Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Dan Reynolds — who was barely 16 at the time of the 1973 riot at Oklahoma State Penitentiary — ended up getting a first-hand look at the violent outbreak.
“I had just turned 16 and I was living in Norman,” Reynolds recalled Thursday.
“Me and a friend of mine were en route to spend a week at Lake Eufaula.
“I hear on the radio there was riot at Oklahoma State Penitentiary,” Reynolds said. That resulted in a temporary delay in his lake plans.
“I asked my buddy if he would like to go to McAlester and see the riot,” Reynolds said. When his friend agreed, they made a detour and headed south.
Reynolds said he had never been to the prison before, but he simply “followed the smoke.”
“I turned off and drove right up the east gate,” Reynolds said.
He’s never forgotten what he saw.
“I saw a large group of inmates clinging to the chain link fence,” Reynolds said. “Next to them was a highway patrol trooper and a man with a bullhorn.”
The man with a bullhorn called out the names of inmates, apparently trying to determine which ones were present at that part of the prison.
“We saw helicopters flying around the penitentiary and the buildings were still smoking,” Reynolds said. “I saw all of the military pup tents north of the penitentiary.
“I saw National Guard troops with rifles on the walls,” he said. Others were on the ground, marching in formation, he said.
“I had a 110 (millimeter) pocket camera and I started taking pictures,” Reynolds said. “We were there basically all day.
“I had no idea I would work there — much less be warden,” Reynolds said.
However, an interest in prisons stemming from an eighth-grade book report started him on the path to his later career with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections — and his eventual job as warden at OSP.
Reynolds has written about his experience in 1973, as well as what he’s observed during his career in corrections, in his book, “On the Other Side of the Bars.”
After starting his career in corrections, he became OSP interim warden in 1991, when then-Warden James Saffle was activated as a member of the Oklahoma National Guard and served overseas during Operation Desert Storm.
Saffle returned to his post as warden following the first war with Iraq and when he was later promoted to the post of DOC director, Reynolds returned to OSP to serve as its new warden.
1985 OSP riot
Earlier, Reynolds had been at OSP as assistant to then-Warden Gary Maynard and had been at the facility in 1985, when another riot occurred at OSP.
Although smaller in terms of property damage and the number of inmates involved, it did result in serious injury to three correctional officers — Eddie Morgan, Tommy Braxton and Charlie Parker — and another seven officers were held by inmates. Some of the officers would testify later at trials that the inmates who held them were actually protecting them from other prisoners who may have wanted to do them harm.
The current 23-hour lock-down policy in place for most inmates at OSP resulted from the 1985 riot, not the one that occurred in 1973. However, other major changes resulted at the facility after the ’73 outbreak.
Some of the changes were connected to a federal lawsuit filed by OSP inmate Bobby Battle. Although the lawsuit had been filed in 1972, it didn’t garner widespread attention until a year later, following the riot at OSP, according to Reynolds. Many of Battle’s grievances were similar to inmate complaints linked to the riot following the studies that occurred in its wake.
The 1973 riot resulted in U.S. District Judge Luther Bohanon placing the Oklahoma Department of Corrections under federal court oversight for approximately 10 years, Reynolds noted.
“The court ordered a lot of areas for the DOC to revise,” noted Reynolds, who later looked at the orders as a DOC employee and subsequently reviewed them as a historian as well.
Reynolds said the court order covered seven segments, including:
• Racial segregation and discrimination,
• Procedural due process,
• Conditions of confinement,
• Use of chemical agents,
• Medical care,
• Correspondence and publications (letters and access to items such as newspapers),
• Access to courts.
The due process section referred to due process inside the institution regarding internal infractions, Reynolds said. It included hearings and an appeal process for alleged infractions inside the facility.
Conditions of confinement concerned issues such as lighting and cell size, he said.
Oklahoma eventually came out from under the federal court supervision and OSP and other prisons in the state then pursued accreditation from the American Correctional Association, which has been obtained.
To become accredited by ACA, more than 400 requirements must be met, ranging from quality of life to daily operations, Reynolds said.
Meanwhile, Reynolds is working on a new book, this one about the riots that have occurred in Oklahoma’s prisons. It will include both the 1973 and 1985 outbreaks at OSP, as well as the riot at the Mack Alford Correctional Center that occurred in 1988 in Stringtown.
Reynolds has long thought correctional officers and other DOC employees deserve a lot of appreciation.
“I call them unsung heroes,” Reynolds said. “They’re pretty well hidden from the public eye.
“It’s a dangerous job,” Reynolds said.
“They’re heroes in my book.”
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.