Victor Baldwin, a hostage in the 1959 Montana prison riot, never forgot

Victor Baldwin, shown fourth from right in this 1970s photo, survived being taken hostage in 1959. Many of these guards shown here worked when the riot occurred or began work at the prison soon afterwards.

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.

Victor Baldwin as he appeared about 40 years after the 1959 riot at Montana State Prison. He was one of the original hostages, and hadn't been working at the prison very long when it happened.

Victor Baldwin as he appeared about 40 years after the 1959 riot at Montana State Prison. He was one of the original hostages, and hadn’t been working at the prison very long when it happened.

8 thoughts on “Victor Baldwin, a hostage in the 1959 Montana prison riot, never forgot

  1. Hi Kevin,
    I’m so interested in your book and plan on ordering it as soon as I comment here. I just found out that I had a close relative who was an inmate during that time. His name was Josef Warf. Is he mentioned in your book?
    I look forward to reading!
    Karen

    • Hello, Karen. I didn’t come across his name while researching Jerry’s Riot but that means he wasn’t a troublemaker and that’s good. If you ever go to the prison museum in Deer Lodge ask to see the “big book” that has each inmates photo and biographical information from that era. Thanks for reading Jerry’s Riot. Kevin

    • Hi Karen, I don’t recall coming across Josef in my riot research and that’s good. That means he wasn’t one of the troublemakers. Most of the inmates in the 1959 Montana prison riot wanted no part of it, which is probably the case with all such disturbances. If you go to Old Montana Prison someday, ask to see the “Definitive List of the Prisoner” book, which contains photos and other descriptive information about inmates from that era. I think it’s also called the “Big Book.” Thanks for reading Jerry’s Riot!

  2. I’ve heard something about Jerry Myles having to wear literal “concrete shoes” for some reasonbuthaven’tbeen able to find out more than that. Can youelaborate on that?

  3. Tony
    I worked worked at MSP back in 69 when Deputy Dwight was in charge of custody. He ruled with an iron fist. I can remember him taking the big strong inmates to max. He would be looking up to these big mean looking men while they begged for forgiveness. He didn’t bat an eye and told them they were going into that cell. They would go ever so reluctantly.
    One time I went to the hole with the captain and two other officers to allow the inmate to empty his honey bucket and refill his plastic quart water jug. The captain gave him his four slices of bread and the inmates said “f–k that bread” and went back into the hole. Well 4 or 5 days later the same group returned to again allow the inmate to empty his honey bucket and fill his water container. The captain gave him his four slices of bread, however, one of the slices was the heel of the loaf. The inmate complained about only getting a small heel. The captain said if you don’t want it we can take it back. He took it. For some reason when I would go assist in this duty, the inmate would always look at the team hoping to see the deputy warden. I learned that it was only the deputy warden that decided when they were coming out of the hole. There was no set day spent in the hole. Only the deputy warden knew.
    Deputy Dwight run a safe prison.

  4. My father Ray Quilici was a guard held hostage during the riot. He quit a few days after the riot was over and went back to farming/ranching.

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