By Kevin S. Giles
I was a young teenage boy when I first saw the inside of Montana State Prison. It was a winter night in 1964, about the time the Beatles made their sensation on The Ed Sullivan Show, and I went to see the fights.
Going inside the prison to witness a boxing match was a coming of age for the son of a prison guard. My father, Murry Giles, was a lieutenant of custody. I had never seen him at work inside the walls.
Dad arranged my visit for a Friday night that he worked. I remember huddling at the main tower entrance with my classmate, Rocky Barton, and his dad, Harold, squinting through a tiny window. We watched a guard unlock a door at the far side. Dad entered. The gold badge on his cap glittered under the naked light bulbs. Once the guard locked that door, he let us inside. That place under the tower was like a sandstone tomb. I looked at the keys and locks and felt a curious mix of fear and wonder at going into the prison. I thought Dad looked more official than I had known him. This impression stays with me more than forty years later.
With Dad in the lead, we left the tower and entered a white building where an old guard behind a barred door welcomed us with some blue language. (Around town, Dad often spoke rampant profanity in the company of prison guards that he carefully avoided at our house.) From the guard’s bony hand several large keys dangled from a worn metal ring resembling a miniature hula-hoop. On the other side of the building another guard waited inside a barred cage between the lobby and the prison yard. After the steel door clanged shut and the big key rattled in the lock, Rocky and I tried not to look at two convicts who watched us with simmering eyes from behind more bars. They wore patches on their shirtsleeves that allowed them into certain areas. In prison vernacular, I learned later, they were “runners” because they ran errands for guards. The turnkey opened the outside door.
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 folding chairs.
I never would have imagined this scene. They came in waves, dressed in khaki, hair glistening with oil, crude brown and black shoes, white socks. Some seemed much too old. Most were white or Indian, a few black. Plenty of them looked tough, but maybe it was my innocence or the tattoos I could see from way up high and how they rolled up their sleeves to show them off. Some looked like friendly neighbors. Some were young enough to attend high school. I tried to guess the really bad ones among them.
I watched Dad. He was the only guard on the floor in that sea of hard men. He was an uncommon man with a common background. Before he came to the prison he sold groceries, then sold cars. In the years around my birth he worked construction, harnessed high above the river at Hungry Horse Dam near Glacier Park in northwestern Montana. In 1958 the prison hired him as a guard. He worked six- and seven-day shifts in Deer Lodge. My mother, brother, sister and I stayed behind in Columbia Falls for nearly eight months until he earned enough money to rent us a house. During that time he lived in the guards’ quarters at the prison.
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. Only a few years later, when I was a senior in high school, he had a heart attack downtown and nearly died after driving home and collapsing on the living room floor. He spent a few more years as manager of the prison canteen before retiring on disability.
When I better understood the full story of prison guards, it became apparent that Dad and others valued their survival most. To leave the “joint” once and for all brought the privilege of never having to look back. Only as Dad’s life withered in his sixtieth year did he consent to revisit the old prison, abandoned nine years earlier for a newer one west of town, and sold to the City of Deer Lodge for a single dollar.
That bright July day was a magnificent one. I remember the clip-clip-clip of sprinklers on the yard’s grass. Wandering tourists thumbed their guide maps in what had become Old Montana Prison. Dad trudged behind his granddaughters, visibly troubled by his memories of this sad place. Only after the girls rained questions on him did he tell some of what he knew, and when he did, he seemed for a short while the confident lieutenant I remembered that night of the boxing match.
Before we left the prison that afternoon, he consented to pause in front of Cell House 1 to have his picture taken with his granddaughters. That was his last visit.
Dad’s memory of the 1959 riot tumbled out over the years. He had known the riot up close and personal. He was one of two guards working the second shift on April 16, 1959, who escaped being taken hostage. Like many men who had witnessed the riot, he sometimes had trouble talking about it. I captured many facts and anecdotes from our informal conversations, which at least provided me dozens of clues when I began researching the riot in 1995.
A front-page picture from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shows Dad crouched atop the wall outside Tower 7 in the dark. He’s reaching to help rifle-bearing Highway Patrol officers climb the wall from ladders. That clipping made him proud. He kept it folded in an envelope in his closet. Dad died of congestive heart failure on April 11, 1989, five days short of the riot’s thirtieth anniversary. Several years later, as I researched records and interviewed the last remaining men who survived those thirty-six hours, I wished Dad were here to guide me.
On summer days when I walk beneath empty towers I think of that night, cold and raw and thick with a boy’s fear of a dangerous and unfamiliar place. I hear my father calling out to rough men in the wild commotion of a boxing match.
Dad is gone now and so is the theater. It’s a shell now, set afire in the closing days of the old prison’s life by an inmate arsonist. Men die, but their memories should live. That’s why I wrote this book. In the charm of a Montana evening, when the sun falls farther still, a pink glow falls on the red brick facade of Cell House 1. Inside it’s gloomy and cold and there’s a silence like death.
The old prison hides secrets from its past. If you listen close, you can hear the men who made this story.
Kevin S. Giles