July 19, 2010

‘Big Mac’ & ‘The Interview’ left big, lasting impression

Karen Brady
The Express-Star

— The Oklahoma State Penitentiary stands on 1,556 acres of land in McAlester, Okla. It was built with prison labor.

The site of the worst prison riot in U. S. history, the massive white structure looms over the city of McAlester. A sickly, yellow light encircles the prison at night, giving one a feeling of evil emanating from the building itself.

The first time I ever saw it, I never dreamed I would step inside the creepy old building.

So when I received a letter from inmate and confessed killer Ronson Bush asking me to come to "Big Mac" to interview him, I was reluctant to do so. He wanted to tell his story since he says his attorneys refused to let him take the stand in court. But, the very idea of entering the intimidating building made my skin crawl.

After thinking it over, I contacted prison officials and asked for an interview. Within a couple of days, I received a phone call telling me where and when to report.

I wrote Ronson and told him I was coming. After all, he had to live there, the least I could do was visit.

On the long drive to the prison, I speculated about the prison itself as well as the prison guards and employees.

I imagined the prison to be intimidating and frightening and I was not wrong. Built in the early 1900s, the building is old and showing signs of disrepair. Old, unused stairs were rusted, out buildings were seedy and badly in need of paint.

State of the art, it wasn't.

And when the exit gate closed unexpectedly on my way out, my heart nearly stopped.

Luckily, the push of a button raised it again.

Checking in with the warden's assistant, I found I would not be allowed to walk through the building to the visiting area. I had to walk around the building on the outside. He said it was about an 1/8 mile walk. With the temperature near 100 degrees, the walk seemed much longer. I was going to have to work for this story.

As I walked in tall grass alongside the prison walls, I got my first true impression of their actual height. The idea of being imprisoned behind them left me cold.

Inside Big Mac was a different story. The floors in H Unit, where I visited Ronson, were shiny as mirrors and, although gray and monochrome, the place was spotless. The only scary thing was the fact that I was locked inside.

As for the prison personnel, I imagined Nazi-like guards with stiff, unsmiling faces.

I could not have been more wrong.

Aside from one guard stationed high in a tower who shouted instructions at me, the people inside the prison were just regular people and not scary in the least.

I was told I would be patted down before entering the visiting area, but the guard, a 30-something young woman, only asked me to take off my shoes.

She then escorted me to the visiting area - a large open space with four stall-like areas on opposite ends of the room.

Each stall had a stool securely bolted to the floor in front of it. Each stool faced a window reinforced with steel wire and covered with steel bars.

 A telephone hung on the wall to my left. The name "Chris" was scratched into the metal shelf in front of the window.

I sat down and waited for Ronson.

A guard soon brought him to the small, cinderblock room in front of me and locked him in the room. Ronson smiled slightly and backed up to an opening in the door so the guard could unlock his handcuffs.

Once freed from the cuffs, Ronson sat down in front of me and picked up the phone. I couldn't help but think about all the times I've watched the same scene play out in the movies.

Only this time it was real. Ronson was there at Big Mac because he had killed a man. The reality of that fact was sobering and I was suddenly unsure how to start.

After a while, I composed myself and visited with Ronson for more than an hour.

Knowing the horrific crime he committed, I was surprised to find I was not afraid of the sad, tearful man in front of me.

Some say he's a monster. Others say he is manipulative.

Maybe so, but the impression I got was one of a man who recognizes the wrong he has done and the terrible pain he has caused, and is ready to make it right as best he can by offering up his own life as payment.