By Kevin S. Giles
A gray drizzle fell as Victor Baldwin stood on the exact spot where rioting inmates took him hostage in 1959. It was 40 years later, yet he remembered everything: what they said, how they threatened him, how scared he felt.
Baldwin was one of 26 hostages held at Montana State Prison during a violent takeover led by inmate Jerry Myles, who had served a long stretch at Alcatraz Island before he came to Deer Lodge.
On the day that I went into Old Montana Prison with Baldwin, fog shrouded the guard towers. The exercise yard, once the hub of prison life, was silent. Our footsteps echoed in the one remaining cell house, cold as a deep freezer.
I was researching a book I had wanted to write since I was a boy. Baldwin was a key source for Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance, as were several other guards and inmates who had first-hand knowledge of the riot. Baldwin recalled how Myles walked around the prison like he owned the place. Guards called him “Little Hitler” among other names.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
The worst fear among guards, Baldwin told me, was that they would lose control in a riot. Guards in 1959 had little training. They had no special armor to protect themselves. Cell houses had no telephones, and guards had no means of communicating with one another except in face-to-face conversations. It was especially dangerous, too, because until late 1958 the prison had no classification system. Rapists mingled with the fish. Murderers walked with check forgers. Violent men controlled the meek. The “con boss” system, a state-sanctioned arrangement that permitted convict leaders to run the inside industries, gave some inmates more power than the guards.
When new Warden Floyd Powell fired the con bosses, replacing them in some cases with civilian supervisors, he upset the balance of power in the prison. Jerry Myles was one of those con bosses, and he vowed revenge.
On the day the riot began, April 16, 1959, Baldwin was a second-shift floor officer in Cell House 2, also known as “the old cell house” or the 1896 cell house, when Myles and his accomplices took him. He had just returned from eating dinner in the guards’ dining room outside the walls when he felt a knife poking his ribs.
Decades later, as we walked in the old prison, I asked Victor to show me where it happened. The older cell house no longer stands; the state tore it down four months after the riot because of structural damage after an earthquake. We stood on an open concrete pad where his desk sat, close to the wall in the northeast corner. He showed me how Myles and the others came from behind, cornering him with weapons.
It’s haunting to hear a guard take you back in time. Baldwin, like many other guards and inmates I interviewed, remembered everything that happened to him that day. He thought he was going to die, and dying makes a man pay attention.
For me, Jerry’s Riot was a personal adventure. My dad, Murry, worked with Baldwin inside the prison the day the riot began but wasn’t taken hostage. Dad later became a lieutenant of custody, and until I left home and went to college, the prison was part of my life. I had heard Dad’s stories about the riot for many years, and at dinner (when he wasn’t at work) he often told us stories of various incidents inside the walls.
When I decided to write Jerry’s Riot, I had two main objectives in mind: to compile a clear and accurate account of the riot, and to tell an interesting story about prison life in the 1950s. I used language commonly spoken then (which is why I say “guards” instead of “correctional officers,” for example) and tried to portray the risk that guards and other employees took each time they entered those gray walls.
It’s a shame that Victor Baldwin, and my dad, and other old guards died before they could read Jerry’s Riot. In many ways the book is all about them. Some people say the dynamics inside prisons never change. If that’s the case, my book is all about guards of today and tomorrow too.