McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

July 29, 2013

Two men who survive worst prison riot in American history meet


Submitted report

McALESTER — They survived the two worst prison riots in American history.

Now, they’re connected by an invisible bond.

Don Almeter, a survivor of the bloody and deadly 1971 prison riot in Attica, New York, met John Barrier, who survived the devastating 1973 riot at Oklahoma State Penitentiary, for the first time in July 2012.

Almeter made it a personal point to visit Barrier, who had been savagely beaten by inmates while held as a captive during the OSP riot. They met in McAlester in a room at the Walnut Grove Living Center.

He could identify with what Barrier lived through.

During the riot at Attica, rampaging inmates had beaten Almeter while storming through the prison. He remained a hostage for days.

Almeter, who is now a volunteer with the Correctional Peace Officers Association and who lives in Florida, had told former OSP Warden Dan Reynolds he wanted to meet Barrier the next time he traveled to Oklahoma.

The nest time Almeter traveled to the Sooner State, he and Reynolds, accompanied by CPFO Field Representative Richard Loud, of Newport, R.I., met with Barrier in a private setting at Walnut Grove.

After saying hello, Almeter gave Barrier a hat and pin from the Correctional Peace Officers Association. He also told Barrier why he and Loud wanted to meet him.

“We respect you, and all of the people look up to you for what you did, for being a correctional officer,” Almeter said.

“And a survivor,” Loud added.

Barrier survived being hit over the head with either a baseball bat or a piece of lumber during the 1973 OSP riot. Inmates then dragged him into a prison barber shop, where they jumped from a barber chair and a nearby table on his back, and also stomped and kicked him.

He was later left dragged away by another inmate trying to help him, then left for dead below a prison tower, before other officers eventually pulled him to safety. However, he had already suffered injuries which left him permanently disabled.

When Barrier learned last July that Almeter had been a hostage during the Attica prison riot, he told him “You’re the man!”

“No, you’re the man!” said Almeter.

Almeter had suffered his own horrors inside Attica.

As a 23-year-old correctional officer, he had been ordered to say inside a locked metal shop building, with other inmates and correctional officers, as the riot unfolded around him.

Inside the building were approximately eight correctional officers and 120 inmates, said Almeter. The inmates locked in the shop with him weren’t doing anything, but he smelled something burning and heard glass breaking outside, he said.

Finally, the inmates outside broke through the shop door, grabbed him and the other officers, stripped them naked and pushed them into the prison yard, Almeter said.

They were beaten, blindfolded and tied. Eventually, some of the inmates said the hostages should be clothed, so they were given inmates’ clothing to wear.

Over the next few days, anytime he tried to pull down his blindfold, he was hit or beaten, Almeter said.

He still vividly remembers the final assault by a small army of state troopers, National Guardsmen, correctional offices, police and others that led to his rescue and ended with the deaths of 29 inmates and 10 hostages.

“I heard the helicopters and I knew what was coming,” Almeter said.

As huge loads of tear gas or pepper spray were dropped into the prison yard, Almeter heard gunfire.

“We couldn’t see it,” he said of himself and the hostages with him. “We were still tied up and blindfolded.” They were still dressing in inmate clothing as well.

Almeter remembers an inmate jerking him up by his collar and hearing a bullet crack by his ear, then being let go to crash to the ground.

He correctly surmised the inmate holding him had been shot. Suddenly, two more inmates pulled him and his cousin, who was also a hostage, upright again.

This time, Almeter said he heard two more shots, and again fell to the ground. Those inmates had been shot as well.

This time, Almeter said he worked his blindfold loose and stood, thinking he would greet the officer approaching him with a gun, making his way through the heavy smoke and tear gas. Instead, the officer slammed  him with the rifle butt and yelled at him to stay down. For a few seconds, Almeter felt he might be killed by one of his rescuers — until another officer he knew  identified him as one of their own.

Later investigations revealed that most, if not all, of the hostages killed during the rescue had been hit by gunfire — a conclusion Almeter believes.

Reynolds, the former warden from OSP and the Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown, believes men such as Barrier and Almeter deserve a lot of credit.

“They’re unsung heroes,” Reynolds said. “They share a common bond, being former hostages.”

Loud said he and Almeter were in Oklahoma as part of a membership drive for the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation. He said it’s a non-profit charitable organization, devoted to helping surviving family members of slain correctional employees, as well as injured officers or those who may need assistance in other ways.

Anyone needing more information can contact the organization’s headquarters in Sacramento, Calif., at 1-800-800-CPOF, or at 916-928-0061, Loud said, or by going to www.cpof.org.

As Almeter completed his McAlester visit, he grasped Barrier’s hand for a good-bye handshake.

“I want you to remember me, because I’ll never forget you,” Almeter said.

“I’ll never forget you, either,” said Barrier.

Later, Almeter spoke of how he feels it’s important that correctional employees injured or killed in the line of duty be remembered.

“We were forgotten, and I’m, quite sure he was, when it happened,” Almeter said.

In 2011, Barrier received special recognition, including a visit from Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones, then-OSP Warden Randy Workman and Reynolds, as well as from numerous friends and family.

Almeter related why he feels he has a special connection with Barrier.

“We have a connection because of what happened back then.

“We lived with it  — and we dealt with it.”

Oklahoma State Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones is well aware of Barrier’s service to the state.

“There are those like John who sacrificed and paid the cost of this,” Jones said when speaking to the News-Capital last week.

The contributions of Barrier and other DOC employees should never be forgotten, Jones said.

“It’s important that we never forget there are people like John.”

“We should remember them every day.”

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.