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Oklahoma History Center preserves ex-prisoners fingerprints

March 11, 2019

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — For the past two years, volunteers at the Oklahoma History Center have been sorting through aging records of former prisoners at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, working to alphabetize the names.

Index cards from many prisoners who served time from 1905 to 1964 had been stored away in a warehouse on the prison grounds in McAlester. The boxes were uncovered several years ago and donated to the Oklahoma History Center, said Bob Blackburn, director.

Not every prisoner’s card has been found, but there are 8,000 cards with fingerprints and another 20,000 cards with the prisoner’s information typed on it. Eventually, the cards will be photographed and posted with information online for public to see on the Oklahoma History Center website, Blackburn said.

The collection has value for criminal justice history and for the study of state culture, Blackburn said to The Oklahoman. “The collection reveals parts of what I call the DNA of Oklahoma and the state’s personality,” Blackburn said. “It captures pictures of the DNA of the people who came to Oklahoma.” Blackburn said the cards also show examples of racism and sexism in the state. Many sentences for women and minorities were harsher than for white men, he said.

Rex Riggleman, 73, of Midwest City, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force, has been volunteering about 5 hours a week working with the prisoner card collection.

“Can you imagine alphabetizing 8,000 names?” Riggleman said.

Riggleman said he has observed cases where women, blacks and American Indians who were convicted for crimes such as spreading a venereal disease or adultery, often received more time in prison than white men convicted of the same crimes.

“It appears there was a disparity in sentencing,” Riggleman said.

The information being preserved from the cards could be valuable for sociologists and historians, he said. The photos of past prisoners also could be used by genealogists and filmmakers.

“All of this data could be very beneficial, knowing what happened yesterday affects today,” Riggleman said. “It all ties together.”

Riggleman said more volunteers are needed to help on the project at the history center.

“I find this work very fascinating. You find something new every day,” he said.


Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com