Mary McAnally poses no immediate threat. Most of her peers are at constant rest in the twilight of their lives, and her calm demeanor suggests that she is no different. But behind the calm lurks a storm, and the unassuming McAnally, now in her seventies, has never stopped stirring the pot.
A leader of Pastors for Peace, McAnally’s fearless dedication to the common man is as strong as ever. It was first unearthed after Martin Luther King Jr.’s appearance at the University of Tulsa, when McAnally rallied fellow students in a civil rights protest. Leading a group to Montgomery, Alabama, then 20-year-old McAnally was arrested for disturbing the peace. It set in motion a “lifetime of going to peace marches and protests and working in various kinds of projects for peace and justice,” she says.
To McAnally, “criminal” does not equal “villain”— if it did, Oklahoma would be downright evil for its amount of prisoners. According to the United States Peace Index, the state’s incarceration rate is the third worst in the country, ahead of only Mississippi and Louisiana. Though this makes convicts increasingly commonplace, Oklahoma civilians keep their distance, leaving the imprisoned to remain outcasts despite their ubiquity.
McAnally insists the state was not always so indifferent. In 1978, the Oklahoma Arts Council commissioned her to teach creative writing in local prisons.
“That was in the days where they cared about prisoners, and prisons tried to offer educational kinds of opportunities to help prisoners rehabilitate while they were incarcerated,” she says. “Unfortunately, things haven’t stayed that way, and prisoners are now incarcerated as punishment and punishment alone.”
While teaching behind bars, McAnally edited an anthology of poems by Oklahoma prisoners. It was published in 1981 under the name Warning: Hitch Hikers May Be Escaping Convicts, a title inspired by signs McAnally used to see on her way to work. Call it an attempt at prison reform, but McAnally claims she was just trying to give inmates an outlet for expression.
“In my creative writing classes, the students themselves are not the ones with the power or the money to make the necessary changes,” she says. Instead of focusing on the feeling of powerlessness this knowledge could inspire, McAnally emphasized the freedom that lies in writing.
“I told the prisoners, ‘You can murder someone in a poem and it can be applauded and praised! If you can do it in a poem, then you don’t have to do it in real life!’ So it’s a way to express your feelings and your deepest thoughts and inclinations, but it’s creative rather than destructive.”
McAnally was awestruck by her students but undaunted at the prospects, however challenging, of finding the poetry in Oklahoma’s prisons.
“I, out of my religious and philosophical mindset, have always thought of all people as equals, whether they’re prisoners, or Negros in the ’60s, or gay, or lesbians, or whatever,” she says. “They’re all equal. So I’ve always respected being able to go into their communities and provide something that inspires and helps them.”
Warning provides a testament to this sense of equality. Its catharsis served not only as an outlet for the fifteen prisoners represented in its pages, but also as proof of their latent humanity. This is all McAnally really wanted from the project.
“Prisoners are people too,” she says. “It could happen to you.”