By BENNIE DURANT
The staff at the McAlester News-Capital are to be congratulated for their excellent articles in the July 28, 2013, Sunday edition pertaining to the 1973 prison riot. The articles were interesting and informative.
In my opinion, the events that occurred immediately after the riot began would also be appropriate in that they add to the historical aspect of the riot. Having said that, the following is an account of action taken in the minutes immediately following the beginning of the riot.
As an executive officer with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol assigned to the McAlester district, I was the first person to receive a telephone call from Warden Park Anderson — through dispatcher Stan McMullen — immediately after the riot began.
Warden Anderson’s words were: “Bennie, there is a riot going on in the mess hall; the inmates have kidnapped several guards and set the place on fire; send me as many troopers as you can.” My response was, “which mess hall?”
His reply was, “the main one.” The next sound I heard was a “click” on the telephone.
By this time, the experienced dispatcher, McMullen, who had overheard my conversation, had already dispatched a message to all troopers presently on duty within a 100-mile radius to report as soon as possible to the front gate of the McAlester prison. Within the next 30 minutes, a contingent of eight troopers arrived at the front gate where they were met by Warden Anderson. He led the troopers, armed with their shotguns, up the front outside steps into the main building where he informed them that the inmates had already destroyed the primary exit security gates and that the lone gate holding the inmates inside was about to be torn open with the confiscated sledge hammers and pry bars they had obtained.
At this spot just inside the gate, were several inmates and one of them was holding a knife to the throat of the assistant warden, Sam Johnson. Their message was clear — Open the gate or we’ll kill the assistant warden. At that time, Warden Anderson spoke: “It is the policy of this administration to never yield to a hostage demand that would allow an inmate to escape and furthermore, these troopers will kill any and all of you that attempts to cause injury to Warden Johnson.”
The inmates mumbled and argued among themselves but after several minutes, slowly drifted back into the depth of the prison. The troopers held their position for several hours until they were provided relief while other arriving troopers were assigned to secure positions outside the perimeter of the prison complex.
I have never seen or heard honorable credit given to Warden Anderson for his bravery and leadership shown in this critical situation. Without his guidance, the troopers would not have known where to go to prohibit the last desperate move by the inmates to escape into the streets. Therefore, it is with belated thanks from me and all interested citizens at this time to offer our appreciation for his leadership in keeping our city from being inundated by more than a thousand dangerous escaped convicts. Perhaps without the presence of troopers and the inmates’ fear of being killed by them, Warden Johnson and other kidnapped guards would not have survived.
The role of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol was not finished at the prison after the riot was quelled and order restored. I supervised a contingent of weekly rotating troopers from all over the state who provided security and guard duty 24 hours a day for many months after the prison riot until the governor and state legislators decided they were no longer needed.
Having served 25 years with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol — the last eight years as a troop commander — the efficiency, versatility and professionalism displayed by the troopers in this crisis was of no surprise to me.
Bennie Durant is retired from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and is a former Pittsburg County sheriff.