The Notorious Prisons episode covers a comprehensive review of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, also referred to as the “Big Mac”. As of the time of the video, the prison termed unique among other penitentiaries within the country housed over 1400 adult male offenders (Gray, 2016). Many of the inmates are maximum-security offenders; a fact that the narrator provides is underlined by the prison’s sordid history of prisoner riots and inmate brutality and violence.
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The prison staff closely monitors the inmate population. An inmate may not use any of the facilities, including the yards, the medical facilities, or the phone booths without a personnel escort. This close scrutiny is, however, inadvertently justified in the 23-hour lockdown that has been implemented in the penitentiary in an attempt to control to the inmate population. This lockdown was effected following two particularly destructive prison riots; the first in 1973 in which most of the prison succumbed to flame, and the second in 1985, where most of the prison staff was grievously injured.
While the measures may seem excessive, the prison staff, as well as the inmates themselves concur to the dangerous nature of “Big Mac” through several interviews interspersed within the video. For instance, Kenny Funkhouser, an inmate serving a life sentence in the penitentiary alludes that he has witnessed several stabbings and strangulations, and other more novel ways to kill within the walls of the prison (Gray, 2016). Alan Fulbright supports this morbid assertion, another inmate commuting a 100-year sentence, and a correctional officer, Daniel Wilson. Calving Alexander, another convict serving a 25-year sentence reiterates that the nature of “Big Mac” is owing to the fact that it is home to some of the deadliest criminals in modern society (Gray, 2016). The extensive security measures undertaken by the prison may be in direct response to this fact as well.
Through a retrospective section, the narrator asserts that Oklahoma did not have its own prison at the turn of the 20th century. Instead, convicted felons were ferried to the Kansas State Penitentiary. In 1908, the city made plans to build its prison on a parcel of land south of Tulsa, which had once been occupied by the Choctaw Indians. The East cellblock, is now deserted due to inhumane conditions, was the first structure to be built, and was designed to hold 100 men; a number that had been far exceeded by 1935. The prison has a distinct shape, with a central rotunda, with connected cell blocks and offices that resemble spokes on a wheel (Gray, 2016). To date, the rotunda remains the hub of the Oklahoma Penitentiary and is the key to operating the prison.
The prison has endured an arduous history of inmate violence and escape, which is why the current procedure of handling inmates is considerably strict, despite an individual’s non-combative outlook. In as early as 1914, several people were killed when inmates stole a gun and staged a break-out. Thereafter “Bloody Sunday” saw an attempted escape in 1941, with several casualties including the warden and the deputy. Grievances of inadequate food and healthcare and allegations of racial discrimination brought about the riots of 1973; which was the greatest challenge as per that point in its history (Gray, 2016). The aging and understaffed prison were severely overcrowded, leading to conditions that resulted in an extremely chaotic riot that necessitated the intervention of the National Guard.
Today, the prison is reflective of how attitudes towards building prisons changed throughout the 20th century. For instance, Cellblock F is the oldest section still in use, with its long steel bars reflective of the period in which it was built. Unit A features solid doors which are reminiscent of a time in the 1980s when privacy and quiet were believed to be essential for prisoner rehabilitation. In contrast, Unit H is partially underground and cordoned off within its own security fence. This unit houses the most dangerous inmates, and its windowless, heavily reinforced cells had been initially built to withstand the rigors of lockdown (Gray, 2016). However, breakouts continue to be attempted in more recent times.
In conclusion, the narrator reviews an issue that has been relatively controversial in moral and legislative domains; that of capital punishment. An electric chair, called “Old Sparky” among prison staff was installed in the Oklahoma prison in 1914 and was used for the next 50 years; electrocuting 82 inmates in the tenure of its use (Gray, 2016). However, in 1977, Oklahoma became the first state after Texas to adopt execution by lethal injection instead; which was termed more humane than the electric chair. A notable figure executed via lethal injection in prison would be Thomas J. Grasso, who requested his extradition from New York to Oklahoma, as the former had outlawed capital punishment.
Overall, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary presents a moral conundrum of ethics and humanity. On the one hand, the 23-hour lockdown imposed on inmates presents a depiction of albeit excessive punishment but placed in the context of the riots, the brutality of the inmates, and the very confessions of some of the inmates interviewed may be argued from a logical and ethical perspective. However, the annual games and charity events held on the grounds depict an entirely different story, if only one of hope, that some level of decency and reform exists in this prison. Ultimately, the question remains whether the quiet atmosphere of resignation imposed by the perpetual lockdown is sustainable.
Gray J. (2016). Notorious prisons sE01 Oklahoma state penitentiary documentary. [Video file]. Web.