In Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance, author Kevin S. Giles captures the conflict that ensued between career convict Jerry Myles, who had done time at Alcatraz Island and other federal and state prisons, and Warden Floyd Powell. Both men were new to Deer Lodge. Myles wanted to run the prison. Powell wanted to reform it.
That conflict came to a violent climax on April 16 when Myles and accomplices Lee Smart and George Alton seized rifles from the guard catwalks in both cellhouses.
“The cause of the riot is often wrongly portrayed as an escape attempt,” Giles said. “That wasn’t the motive behind it. Jerry Myles didn’t want out of prison. He wanted glory. In his mind Powell and Deputy Warden Ted Rothe shamed him, and he was going to show them who was boss.”
The riot made news from coast to coast. Floyd Powell’s cousin read about it on the front page of the Globe in downtown Boston. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a front-page photograph. National magazines like Life and Saturday Evening Post sent correspondents to Deer Lodge. Inquiries even came from London.
“This is a story of men in crisis,” Giles said of his 440-page book, which he spent 10 years researching and writing. “Despite all the news coverage of the riot over those three days in 1959, little was said or understood about the reasons for it. The riot tore apart many of the men involved and brought anguish to their families.”
Jerry’s Riot recounts Myles’ childhood and his long prison history. It also examines the circumstances leading to the 1959 riot, including the 1957 “pea riot” disturbance. Giles writes about the riot, including the taking of 26 hostages, in painstaking detail. Among the surviving hostages he interviewed to get their first-hand accounts was Victor Baldwin of Deer Lodge, who died recently. He also interviewed the one surviving ringleader, George Alton.
Giles is a native of Deer Lodge. His father, Murry, was a guard who was working inside the prison the afternoon the riot began. “My interest in the riot began with my early recollections of Dad going to work at the old prison, and how an entire shift of guards huddled and smoked outside Tower 7 on Main Street before going inside,” Giles said. “They stood there in blue uniforms, all ready to go, and then the guard on the tower dropped the key to them. Even to a young boy, it was quite a sight.”
Soon after Giles started investigating the riot in 1995, it became clear to him that Jerry Myles was the central figure of the story. “I didn’t have a title for the book for a few years until Jerry Myles emerged in the dominant way he did in my research,” Giles said. “Here was a psychopath who had led a mutiny at the federal prison in Atlanta, and then had watched a fatal escape attempt at Alcatraz. He was a riot leader in training. What he did to gain control of Montana State Prison was hauntingly similar to what he’d seen happen at Alcatraz.”
Giles said evidence shows that Myles deliberately committed a burglary to get inside Montana State Prison. Myles had heard about the “con boss” system at the prison, where inmates were given jobs supervising other inmates in the industries. “He had spent all of his adult life in one prison or another, felt alone and scared on the outside, and thought because of his long history in prisons that he deserved to run one,” Giles said. “This is the mind of a psychopath. He came to Deer Lodge after hearing that convicts ran the industries and he saw a place to take control. Evaluations from other prisons showed that if he wasn’t held in close custody, trouble would happen.”
Myles was in charge of the garment shop inside the walls when Powell came to Deer Lodge in the summer of 1958 from Wisconsin State Prison. Powell was the first Montana State Prison warden who was not a political appointee. A few months later, he hired Ted Rothe, an industries supervisor from the same prison in Wisconsin, to be his deputy warden. Powell and Rothe decided to end the con boss system that Myles dearly loved. When they did, they upset the balance of power in the prison.
“Riots broke out in prisons all over the country in the 1950s for much the same reason,” Giles said. “As wardens wanted to make prisons more progressive, they shifted the balance of power more toward the custodial staff. In prisons, any shift from routines causes trouble. Powell and Rothe were willing to take that risk, but they didn’t know enough about Jerry Myles and his inclinations.”
When Powell arrived in Deer Lodge, the prison had no means of classifying and segregating inmates by crime, and had little on record about the most dangerous men. “There’s no evidence that anyone knew why Myles did time in Alcatraz, considered the last stop among federal prisons, or why he should be segregated from other prisoners in Deer Lodge,” Giles said. Walter Jones Jr., a Butte native and the prison’s new sociologist, tried unsuccessfully to convince Rothe to segregate Myles, Giles said.
“And so Montana had a riot that resulted in loss of life,” he said.
Despite Powell’s determination to make the prison more secure, it fell like a house of cards on April 16, Giles said. “The riot succeeded because Myles and Smart seized rifles that guards carried on the catwalks in both cell houses. Unfortunately, one of the rifles had ammunition. Those rifles gave Jerry Myles great leverage to start his riot.”