The Governor Fiddled While His Prison Burned

by Mickey Owens


The prison print shop was in a two-story building across from male clothing, and above me on the upper floor was the broom and mattress factory. It was my first day on the job and my second day as a resident of Oklahoma State Prison at McAlester, July 27, 1973; a date full of such mayhem and violence that it is still clearly etched into my consciousness.

Upon reporting for work that morning, an assistant supervisor assigned me the simple task of binding covers on Department of Corrections manuals. I was seated at a long wooden table near a window that faced the lieutenant’s office. Next to me was a convict with both arms under the table. He was shooting up narcotic drugs. I quickly looked away. What was not my business was not my business.

Mickey Owens discusses the Oklahoma prison riots 40 years ago:

An hour of work passed. Then two. I was rapidly falling into the groove and lost in the hypnotic rhythm of the task. The trance was shattered by an announcement over the PA system that echoed across the yard. A slurring voice blared “This is a revolution. We’re taking over this place!” I did not know how to react. But I knew the PA system was located in the lieutenant’s office, so I determined that this was for real.

I scrambled to the window and, with mounting anxiety, watched as several inmates pushed a wheelbarrow down the ramp and toward the hospital. In the wheelbarrow was a captain, with his upper torso covered in blood. I later discovered that he had been beaten by the drunken inmates.

Shortly after the announcement, several convicts with torches surrounded the print shop.

“You guys come out of there!” one of them shouted. “We’re gonna burn it down!”

One of the guards told them that the door was locked and the rioting inmates went to work on it with hammers and hatchets. It did not take long before it crashed in.

As I left, I looked back at the cowering staff locked in the office. I knew they would become hostages.

The inmates in the shop hurried out, I along with them. As I left, I looked back at the cowering staff locked in the office. I knew they would become hostages. I hoped they would live through it.

Outside, the yard was total chaos. Two thousand men ran around like ants on an anthill that had been kicked, some carrying torches, most carrying weapons. There were fires everywhere. At times the smoke caused my eyes to water and I could not see.

The print shop, broom and mattress factory, laundry, book bindery, furniture factory, and chapel were all in flames. We had radios on the yard and could monitor the news as the riot went forth. We heard the governor’s press secretary say, “The animals have taken over the zoo.” We heard a lot of words being spoken and a lot of judgments being made, but nothing was being done. The governor fiddled while his prison burned.

Through the smoke I could see fights and bludgeoning. This was a window of opportunity for inmates to settle old scores and animosities. I saw an inmate shot in the abdomen by a tower guard perched atop the wall. I resolved to keep away from the towers and as far as possible from the melee.

My clothing had darkened with soot from the many fires that were raging.

I found Hoppy, my cellmate, sitting on a bench far to the sidelines with several other inmates, quietly drinking pruno from a bucket with a tin cup (pruno is an alcoholic concoction made from fermented fruit). We sat and watched the chaos and no one said much. None of us would admit our fears—admitting fear is simply not done in prison—but the atmosphere around the bench was crackling with suppressed anxiety. I too sat and drank, staying as invisible as possible while waiting for the calming effect of the pruno to kick in. I drained the first few tin cups in one gulp. I was quickly intoxicated. With rage on the loose all around me, intoxicated was exactly where I wanted to be.

Hoppy and the others were armed with clubs and knives. I asked where I might find a weapon in case I needed to defend myself. “Go to the back of the mess hall, to the butcher shop,” Hoppy instructed, “You’ll find something there.”

I found a cutting knife half the length of my arm and stuck it through the belt loops of my pants, like a scabbard. It remained there for the course of the riot.

A few hours after finding the shank, I discovered the canteen building, complete with groceries and smokes. It had two sales windows, and the inmates who worked in the shop were shoving out canned goods, pastries, and beverages to anyone who asked for them. A wheelbarrow was nearby. I knew it might be a long time before the prison was re-taken. I filled the wheelbarrow with food items and wheeled it all the way up to our cell. The cell doors were open because the locking mechanism had been ripped out and rendered ineffective. It would be many months before they were repaired.

The presence of the hostages kept the guards and police at bay; they would not storm the prison before the hostages were freed and safe. There were at least 30 of them, one of whom was the deputy warden. Several inmates, armed with weapons, escorted them across the yard from time to time. They were guarding them from inmates as well as using them as a bargaining chip. Some of the more violent inmates wanted to snuff them in an act of vengeance. My clothing had darkened with soot from the many fires that were raging. I resolved to head for male clothing and change into clean ones. The authorities had cut the power to the prison, so light was dim in the clothing and shower room, and it was difficult to make out objects. I heard a man pleading. Peering closer, I saw four inmates in a state of undress, with a fifth kneeling before them. He was performing oral sex between his pleas that his life be spared. I ascertained that I had a better place to be for the moment and hastily took my leave.

Later in the evening I passed the clothing room and saw how that drama had ended. The inmate who had pleaded was on the ground, face down. His bare back was littered with stab wounds. He was quite dead.

I was shaken by what I saw. I quickly made my way to another part of the yard, and understood for the first time how real all of this was; a life could be taken at someone’s whim. I went through each motion and movement of that day like a robot. The shock of the violence, the smoke, and even the sudden lack of constraint and relative freedom rendered me almost emotionless. Even though I was intoxicated, I felt more machine than man. I’ve now learned that this mental state is called “dissociation” and happens when circumstances are too uncomfortable to handle directly. After having already spent years in the juvenile corrections system, you’d think I’d have been accustomed to violence. The fact was that I had learned to expect it, but I don’t believe anyone ever really acclimates to it. We continue to feel horror and fear, but instead of experiencing it, we bury the feelings well below consciousness—where they fester and boil and eventually cause a whole lot of trouble. In my case, that trouble manifested itself as murder.

The riot lasted three horrible days. Finally, the negotiators, including the warden, met with a council of inmates and promised that conditions at the prison would improve. After this, the hostages were released. The improvements never happened, of course. The authorities were only concerned with the safe release of the hostages. They would have agreed to fly us to Cuba, if requested. It was naïve to think otherwise. After the riot things got worse. Much worse.

They stormed the prison; Highway Patrol troopers, deputy sheriffs, local cops, and the National Guard. They steered an easy thousand of us at gunpoint onto one of the yards. They then drove in a tank, set up a barricade around the tank and trained its cannon on us. I kept my distance.

July was a scorching hot month. But it was the nights that alarmed me. That was when I became most vigilant. I heard and saw people getting shanked. I witnessed a young black kid charging across the yard with several black inmates chasing him. He was trying to make it to the barricade but did not. He fell over a table and his pursuers caught up with him. They smashed in his head with a hatchet, and he died, face-down. The cops did nothing. They were dispassionate of the violence. They were there as a show of force and would not intervene unless it was one of their own being slashed to pieces.

We were kept on the yard for two more days without food or medical care for the inmates who were wounded. I had an epileptic seizure that went unnoticed—or at least untended. On the third day we were marched into the east cell house. Three of us were placed into two-man cells. We had no blankets or mattresses, and we rotated so that each person took a turn sleeping on the cement floor, while the other two slept on a bed frame. We were not issued soap or toilet paper for the first week, so we used the brown paper bags that our food arrived in to clean ourselves.

Ten days later we were placed two men to a cell. We were also issued one mattress and wool blanket per man— still no sheets, but at least we had something with which to keep us warm. It was one of the few comforts given to us over the next two years. We were fed sparingly; two simple sack lunches per day. Men were losing weight rapidly. We were hungry for almost two years.

Out of frustration we would shake and rattle our doors until the noise would become deafening. The sound spread for miles, we were told. In response to the rebellion, the guards would bring in a machine that put out a fog of tear gas. The gas burned our eyes, nose, and throat, and many of the older cons would pass out and have to be carried away. But it did not bring quiet to the tiers. It only ratcheted up the decibel level.

I grew to hate my captors and their insidious torture machine. One day the warden was spat on by an inmate. In retaliation for this, fire hoses were dragged down the run and each inmate was hit with a high-pressure spear of water. The water knocked me to the floor and rolled me to the back wall. Nothing was spared the soaking. My family photos were ruined and floated out to the run. There was a photo of me in a cowboy hat at about the age of two, being held by my pretty teenage mother. I would look at that photo when I needed a reminder that I had been loved. It was washed away. Our blankets, mattresses and clothing were drenched. It was February in Oklahoma and they opened the windows on the outside tiers so that we shook and shivered in the wet until well into the following day.

Excerpted from Life Sentence, Life Purpose, a memoir available on

Published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 14. July 15, 2013.