Atop the prison wall during a riot: A memory captured for the ages

1959 Montana prison riot

Officer Murry Giles, kneeling on the wall outside Tower 7 at Montana State Prison, steadies a ladder for ascending state troopers who arrived in Deer Lodge on April 16, 1959, after inmates took control of the prison.

By Kevin S. Giles

A front-page picture from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shows my father crouched atop the wall surrounding Montana State Prison. It’s dark, and he’s reaching to help rifle-bearing Highway Patrol officers climbing ladders in the glare of floodlights. That clipping made him proud. He kept it folded in an envelope in his closet, evidence of his participation in quelling a prisoner takeover in 1959 that included the gunshot slaying of Deputy Warden Ted Rothe.

Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot

 

Children of prison guards never knew much of what their parents did — and still don’t. Drama behind walls and fences and bars is the stuff of compelling stories but seldom does any of it emerge into public view. Rarely does a prison guard at work hit the papers as explicitly as when a news photographer captured my dad, Murry Giles, helping those state troopers scale the big sandstone prison wall.

Murry Giles. lieutenant of custody at Montana State Prison, as he looked a few years after the 1959 riot.

In those years I remember best, Dad worked day and afternoon shifts at the prison. I was accustomed to seeing him wearing his uniform coming and going. It was a smoky blue color, with stripes on the sleeves, and he wore a matching cap with a shiny vinyl bill. Before each shift began the guards stood outside Tower 7, the main entrance, smoking and talking. When the signal came they flowed inside, dribbling out of view, as a straw drains the last of anything from a glass.

At home, Dad said little about the prison. Around other guards in garages and tire shops and other places where they would congregate, Dad spoke “guard talk,” a rougher profane language that I presumed was truer to conversations inside the prison.

I never knew anything about his job until I went to a boxing match at the prison when I was 14 years old. I recount the experience in the prologue of Jerry’s Riot, my nonfiction account of the 1959 Montana prison riot. Here’s a snippet of it:

“We once again walked in the frigid night air, but on the inside of the prison now. Our rubber boots crunched on the snow. Yellow light spilled from the high windows of the theater. That’s where we would watch inmates box. Silhouettes emerged from dark towers. Guards with rifles stood on the wall, watching us walk to the theater. Another guard inside the theater sent us up the west staircase to the balcony, where we sat alone. Somebody locked a door behind us. Below, Dad watched from near the boxing ring as convicts streamed into the wooden seats.

“I watched Dad. He was the only guard on the floor in that sea of hard men. … Dad could shoot the breeze with anybody. He was that kind of man. In the theater that night, I watched him joke with convicts, but he wouldn’t be intimidated. He just stepped right into the rows when he had to straighten someone out. I was beginning to understand why he was a successful keeper of men. Dad made a good prison guard because he talked the rough talk, and the inmates understood him.”

I’ve written a fair bit about the commendable work of corrections officers and won’t belabor the point. It’s dangerous work, performed in troubling and explosive surroundings, that mostly everybody will never see.

It was about the time of the boxing match, a long time ago, when I was shooting baskets at the hoop nailed to the end of the garage behind our little stucco house in Deer Lodge, Montana. Dad drove up, wearing his uniform, after finishing his shift at the prison.

“See anything different about me?” he asked.

He seemed a little disappointed that I didn’t notice right away, but there it was, finally: gold had replaced silver on his cap and collar.

“I got promoted to lieutenant today,” he informed me in his matter of fact fashion, and the father I had known as Sgt. Giles had transformed to a higher rank at a workplace I barely understood.

Yes, Deer Lodge was a prison town, but it also was a railroad town, a logging town, a mining town and a farming and ranching town. Most kids probably never saw their parents at work. Occasionally I visited my mother in her third-grade classroom at old Central School, but except for the boxing match, I never saw my dad once he went inside those prison walls.

Murry Giles in Montana State Prison.

Here’s my dad, Murry Giles, working inside Montana State Prison on a night shift in the 1960s. Note the shoe shine chair in the background and the grill door next to it. A guard opened that door with brass keys before anyone could walk outside to the main gate, which had two more thick doors.

Dad consented to revisit the old prison the summer before he died. It was a museum by then, known as Old Montana Prison, and felt spooky but not dangerous. Lacking enthusiasm for the tour, Dad trailed behind his granddaughters and my sister Kerry, uncomfortable at the memories. Many guards who left the prison never wanted to go back. Heart problems had forced him to retire early, and in all those years until his death in 1989, that day with Kerry and his granddaughters was the only time he went back inside.

After his funeral I was going through his closet when I found a box of newspaper clippings, all carefully folded, from that three-day riot in 1959. On top was the front page from the Seattle paper, what he wanted us to remember — Dad in uniform, helping those state troopers climb a wall to quell a riot. Dad, in the middle of it all, which I now suspect he was doing all along in a prison full of hard men.

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books are set in his native western Montana. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)

4 thoughts on “Atop the prison wall during a riot: A memory captured for the ages

  1. Absolutely loved this. I could not only feel what you wrote but I could see it and hear it. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. Brought tears to my eyes. How proud he must have felt that he was a part of stopping a bad situation from becoming worse. And how proud you must feel. You were truly blessed to have the childhood you had, and the parents who gave you that life.

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