End of Hope: One Offender’s Path to the Penitentiary

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Clifton Adcock / Oklahoma Watch

Only the foyer of the old Sallisaw High School, which David Hammock burned to the ground in 2004, still stands. The property has since become a city park.

An ongoing series on the state of mental health and access to treatment in rural Oklahoma. The project is enabled by a grant from the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation.

Like other suicides in Oklahoma prisons, little is publicly known about the circumstances of David Hammock’s death.

On June 1, 2014, he was found hanging in his cell at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and died in a Tulsa hospital four days later. He was 28 years old.


Part One: Bleak House – Suicides in the Penitentiary


His death came about a week before the 10th anniversary of the crime that sent him to prison: At age 18, he had lit a fire that burned the old Sallisaw High School building to the ground, outraging local citizens.

Although no one was hurt, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for second-degree arson and second-degree burglary, with 10 years suspended – his first convictions as an adult. His poor choices afterward lengthened his prison time.

David Hammock

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections will not release its investigative reports on suicides or any information about the inmate’s mental-health condition, citing both state laws and a federal health privacy law. The state corrections board discusses inmates’ suicides behind closed doors, in executive session.

Hammock’s family will not discuss his death at length. His brother, Greg Hammock, only intimates that his mother’s grief still runs deep.

Hammock’s story, at least, speaks to Oklahoma’s widely accepted ethos of punishment and the mysteries surrounding events that precede inmates’ taking their own lives.

Between 2012 and 2015, nine of the 25 inmates who committed suicide, including Hammock, were serving time in the penitentiary, where most inmates are locked up 23 hours a day.

A Public Apology

“I am writing to you today, to all of Sallisaw, to apologize for the malicious mischief that I have caused in your town,” began the letter that appeared in the April 14, 2006, edition of the Sequoyah County Times.

David Hammock wrote the letter from a Corrections Department delayed-sentencing boot camp program, where a judge had sent him after he entered a guilty plea in 2005.

Earlier, Hammock had sought a change in venue, saying he could not receive a fair trial in Sallisaw because residents were angry over the burning of the cherished school building. The venue change was denied.

Hammock’s letter, written as his formal sentencing approached, said, “From the bottom of my heart I give you my sincerest apologies. I pray that you can find it in your hearts to forgive me for my trespasses.”

Many residents and members of the Old Sallisaw High School Association were unmoved.

The district attorney assured citizens that he had no interest in negotiating a plea deal with Hammock, and would seek the maximum penalty for the arson and burglary charges – consecutive sentences adding up to 46 years in prison.

The Sequoyah County Times included a story with reaction from community members, most of whom thought the apology was insincere.  One person was quoted as saying he would accept the apology “after he’s served 25 years in prison.” Another said, “I don’t find it in my heart to forgive him in any shape or form. I leave that forgiveness up to God.”

Hammock was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with 10 years suspended, and sent to a correctional facility.

The Fire

Hammock had been in trouble with the law as a juvenile, and shortly after turning 18 was charged with burglary for breaking into a store and stealing beer. The ink on those charges had barely dried when the old Sallisaw High School burned to the ground.

The fire started in the early morning hours of June 9, 2004, and upset many in Sallisaw, a city of less than 9,000.

Hammock would later tell police that he had been drinking with two other youths when he decided to break into the old school to steal class rings. He had been caught stealing the rings before, and assuming they had been returned to the high school, he said he decided to steal them again, court records show.

The school was a Works Progress Administration building constructed in the late 1930s. In the mid-1990s the building was purchased by the Old Sallisaw High School Association, which raised half-a-million dollars to renovate the building and was working on turning it into a community center and museum, the Sequoyah County newspaper reported.

Several members of the association had donated art, trophies and other memorabilia that were in the building when Hammock broke in through a window that night.

As he walked from room to room, Hammock later told police, he absentmindedly threw a lit cigarette into a pile of rags. However, fire investigators identified at least three possible points of ignition in the room where the fire started, court records show.

Minutes later, in another room, Hammock said he noticed the building filling up with smoke and he fled. Police would catch him days later in Arkansas.

Plea for Leniency

In 2007, a year after Hammock was locked up, a judge agreed to consider suspending the other half of his 20-year sentence, pending completion of a year-long drug and alcohol treatment program in Tahlequah.

During the hearing, more than a dozen supporters of the old high school, along with the district attorney’s office, showed up at the hearing to voice opposition to his release, the Sequoyah County Times reported.

They said the destruction of the building had broken their hearts.

“The place was more than a building,” the Times quoted then Assistant District Attorney Kyle Waters. “He is not going to be able to replace that.”

Hammock’s mother Regina Dickens begged the judge to release her son.

“He is a human person. He has a heart,” Dickens said. “Material things don’t.”

Hammock’s attorney argued for leniency, saying he had never seen such a long sentence for arson for a first-time nonviolent offender.

“He’s on his way to becoming a good citizen,” attorney Gerald Hunter said. “Let him be with his mother, who is in the courtroom today, and enjoy a good life,” attorney Gerald Hunter said.

The judge sent him to Tahlequah.

Failing a Program

The following year, Hammock was brought back to court after the district attorney asked that his suspended sentence be revoked for failing to complete the program.

Hammock’s attorney accused the Tahlequah program’s director of making Hammock’s time at the facility unbearable. The program director testified that Hammock had failed a drug test and left the program without permission.

Court records show he was also being prescribed an antidepressant and other medications.

All 20 years of Hammock’s suspended sentence were revoked and he was ordered to undergo a Corrections Department alcohol addiction program before being released again.

Hammock, 22, was taken back to prison.

Rejection and Escape

In 2009, more than a year after he was sent back to prison, Hammock began writing letters to the Sequoyah County District Court.

He was being held in Oklahoma State Reformatory’s segregated housing unit, which didn’t offer the drug and alcohol program required by the court for him to be eligible for release.

“I would like to be home with my family,” Hammock wrote the court on Dec. 8, 2009.

“I’ve done a lot of time and have had plenty to think about over the years I’ve been incarcerated and would like the opportunity to start a life.

Hammock sent a second letter to the court a week later asking again for a sentence modification that would allow him to take the program.

“I have been on the streets total of eight months since I was 18 years old. I know this is my fault … I am asking you for another chance. I want to be with my family and even to start a family. I am tired of doing time. All I’m learning is how to be institutionalized.”

In 2010, now at another facility that offered the treatment program, Hammock learned that only inmates with fewer than 2,000 days left on their sentence were eligible. A staff member rejected his request to participate in the program, “You’ll just have to wait.”

Hammock later wrote to a Sequoyah County judge asking for his sentence to be modified so he could take the class. “Please help,” he wrote.

He was assigned a court date in February 2012 to make his plea, but the judge denied the application.

A month later, while working in the maintenance area of the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, Hammock stole a Corrections Department van and attempted to escape.

A chase ensued. In Carter County, Hammock hit a civilian car, went off the road and crashed into a trooper’s car before being taken into custody. No one was injured.

Hammock pleaded guilty to several charges in Cleveland and Carter counties. An additional 15 years was added to his time in prison.

He was transferred to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, where he would spend 23 hours a day in his cell.

‘No Hope’

Hammock sent a final court motion in July 2013 asking to have his Carter County conviction overturned. After that, the flow of filings and letters that he had regularly sent to the court stopped.

He remained in the penitentiary for two years before hanging himself.

The Corrections Department would only say to the Sequoyah County Times that Hammock had died as the result of a medical issue.

No formal service was announced in the newspaper obituary.

“All I know is David missed us and he felt he had no hope,” his brother Greg wrote recently to Oklahoma Watch. “So he took his life.”

  • Todd Fischer

    Am I missing something here? Mr. Hammock broke the law while in society, then when apprehended and incarcerated continued to break laws. Seems we should save our societal mercy for individuals who demonstrate their remorse through actions rather than words.