By Kevin S. Giles
On April 16, 1959, three angry inmates seized Montana State Prison. They took 26 hostages, including Warden Floyd Powell, and made half-hearted demands for better conditions.
Jerry Myles, the psychopath who led the riot, wanted recognition, not a better place to live. Prison to him was home. He enjoyed more freedom at MSP than at other state and federal prisons where he had served time. At Alcatraz Island, for example, his keepers kept him in close custody for more than a dozen years.
Myles read Montana State Prison’s security like a book. He and co-conspirators Lee Smart and George Alton gained total control in the time it takes to eat dinner. They held the prison for 36 hours before the National Guard charged inside in the wee hours of April 18.
The takeover looked so easy. Why couldn’t the prison guards prevent it?
The answer is simpler than people might think. Guards (as they were known then) had no knowledge to prevent a riot. One guard, for example, said all he was told was to throw his keys over the prison wall. Guards were no match for Myles, an accomplished career criminal who led a mutiny at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. That misbehavior sent him to Alcatraz until shortly before he arrived at MSP on a burglary conviction.
Three men died in the Deer Lodge disturbance (called a “riot” at the time because it came at the end of a decade of prison violence in America), but what’s often overlooked is that most inmates refused to get involved because they got fair treatment from the guards. Several inmates risked their lives by feeding and protecting hostages.
Even today, corrections officers don’t get their due. Prison movies like “The Shawshenk Redemption” and “The Longest Mile” drew critical praise, but like many others of the genre, they portrayed guards and wardens as sadistic thugs. The public has a limited and somewhat skewed perception of the work that goes on behind fences and bars. Nobody denies a history of corruption in prisons. Yet as history shows, prisons fail when they don’t have officers who have the courage to temper the will of dangerous inmates.
We might be lulled into thinking that prisons today, loaded with cameras, electronic doors and other sophisticated technologies, can’t possibly fall to a man like Jerry Myles who wants his name in the headlines. After all, progress in the corrections industry nationwide has been substantial since that riot in Deer Lodge more than a half century ago. Yet another murderous rampage at MSP, in 1991, showed how quickly serious trouble can arise, even in controlled, segregated units.
In 1959, guards didn’t have body armor, two-way radios, protective rubber gloves, metal detectors, pepper spray or quick response teams. Training was poor, often nonexistent. Some guards reported that their orientation before the riot consisted of being sent into the exercise yard among hundreds of inmates.
Before Powell came to MSP, prisoners weren’t classified by crime or age. Killers mingled with bad check writers, hardened men with scared boys. As the new warden made changes, he upset the balance of power inside the prison and consequently, Deer Lodge became the latest in a chain of violent prison riots across the country. Myles attacked Deputy Warden Ted Rothe with a knife. As they fought, Smart shot and killed Rothe with a rifle taken from a prison guard.
Today, Montana State Prison bears little resemblance to its fortress-like ancestor, now a museum. In contrast to the imposing stone walls downtown, familiar to picture-snapping tourists for decades, a silver stream of razor barb surrounds the newer prison west of town. The prison looks different but the role of a corrections officer remains much the same as in 1959. Officers can’t be friends. They can’t be enemies, either. Even with the bells and whistles of security they’re in constant danger. Their best defense is a mutual respect with inmates that allows them to resolve problems before mole hills become mountains.
Despite all the upgrades in corrections, officers today earn barely more than workers in fast food restaurants. In Montana, the going wage recently was $12 an hour. That’s an improvement over the pittance that guards made in 1959, but hardly reflective of the skill and courage needed to work among felons.
It’s no wonder that the prison can’t find enough guards, or keep them for an extended time. Most people might not care much about the wages of corrections officers. The 1959 riot reminds us of the costly alternative.
(Kevin S. Giles is the son of a one-time MSP prison lieutenant and author of the book, Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.)