8.1 Big Mac

In the 1970s, the McAlester (“Big Mac”) Oklahoma State Penitentiary was the site of considerable resistance and rioting by inmates (Winter Soldier 1975, The Rag 1975). A major tool used by the guards in retaliation was tear gas, which they deployed via shot shells, grenades, and pepper foggers (Allen 1974a, 1975a, 1975b, Coffey 1975b). Given its use here, it is highly likely that the Oklahoma State Penitentiary system used pepper foggers before (and likely after) (Johnson 1974).

The guards regularly isolated the uprising’s leaders in the solitary confinement building known as “The Rock”, sealed the building, and gassed it so thick it lasted for days (Allen 1974b, The Rag 1975). During the May 20 1974 gassings in response to riots, Black prisoner Robert Forsythe, a 33-year old serving time for a robbery, happened to be in solitary confinement due to being caught with contraband money and was not associated with the uprising directly, and so inexperienced with the effects of gas (Johnson 1974, The Rag 1975, Wilson 1993). Although reports are conflicting on details, guards started fogging and gassing prisoners who were, at most, rattling their doors (Hobbs 1974). The likely reason for the barrage was retaliatory, as it was “unjustified” according to a veteran guard (Coffey 1975a).

During the gassings, a pepper fogger was specifically used in the building and created “fumes of gas [that] were awfully heavy, one of the worst I’ve ever seen” according to veteran corrections officers’ trial testimony (Allen 1975b, Coffey 1975a). The gassing lasted for four hours despite yells for help, resulting in serious injuries including burned and blistered skin, eyes swollen shut, and breathing difficulties (Coffey 1975b). That intense fogging and lack of medical attention over the next two days were main factors contributing to Forsythe’s injuries and death two days later, according to medical experts’ testimony (Allen 1974b, 1975a, 1975b).

Although the guards involved were indicted by a grand jury and brought to trial, they ultimately were acquitted of all charges (United Press International 1975b, 1975c).