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Stories from the Old Montana State Prison

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DEER LODGE - Deer Lodge, Mont. has been home to some of the state's most dangerous criminals for the last 100 years. Many were housed in the old Montana State Prison, built in the late 1800s and used before Montana was considered a state.

“The moment you see it, you just have to know something about it,” said Melanie Sanchez, curator for the Old Montana State Prison museum. “The first time you see this castle-like place in the middle of this little town – it’s inviting and slightly enticing. Its like 'come inside, see what I have to offer…what history lies within me.'”

The history of the first Montana State Prison, first known as the territorial prison, is full of inmate mistreatment, overcrowding and some of the same lawlessness that put the prisoners there in the first place.

“The saying is that when they walked through Tower 7 they lost their souls,” said Sandy Pettey, the museum director. “That is about the truest thing that can be said. You could no longer see anything outside of the prison because the walls were so high and it became its own hell on earth.”

Young men arrested for something as simple as a joyride, were put in cells right next to rapists and murderers.  In the early days, guards did not need to be educated or to even be able to spell their names; the only requirement was to walk the tall prison walls with a gun.

In 1959, 70 years worth of tension boiled over. Two inmates, Jerry Myles and Lee Smart, organized a prison riot. They killed the deputy warden and took 26 other prison employees and inmates hostage.

Those on the outside feared for the worse as the hours and days drug on. Journalists from all over the country descended upon the small town. Some were able to get closer than anyone, as the rioters told their side of the story.

 After 36 hours, the Montana National Guard was finally able to secure a plan to rescue the hostages and effectively end the riots. They fired a bazooka into the tower Myles and Smart were holed up in, now referred to simply as “The Death Tower.”

Not willing to be captured and held responsible, Myles and Smart committed a murder-suicide at the top of the tower stairs.

“Their intent was that it would be a bloody mess when the guards got there,” Pettey said. “The second man up the stairs slipped and fell, he didn’t know what caused it but he reached down and felt something and put it in his pocket.  About four years later – he’s had it for about 60 years – he brings me back this package and says “I’ve had this all these years and I think it should belong back to the prison” and he dumped out of a bag and into my hand the jawbone of Jerry Myles.”

The guards, who found the bodies, drug them down the many flights of stairs and displayed the two bodies in the prison yard as a warning to the other inmates.

About 200 people, both prisoners and employees, died at the old Montana State Prison, and many believe some of them have never left.

“Often you hear things like “help me” or “get out”,” said Pettey. “I’ve been told to get out and that sounds kind of crazy but once you’ve experienced it then you have to say there is definitely energy left here. The things that went on here were so unpleasant that perhaps people just can’t pass on to where they need to go.”

If you don’t believe the souls of the dead wander the halls of the prison, there are a few people still buried on the grounds.

The prison walls were built about 20 years after the prison opened. The construction was in the vicinity of the old prison cemetery, so as part of the process the bodies had to be unburied and moved.

“During that process in those times, there were 27 bodies out there but they were only able to find 25 so we still have a few souls laid to rest here. This is their final resting place,” said Sanchez.

In over 100 years of operation, the prison boasts plenty of intriguing stories, many about some of the prison's more famous inmates.

According to Sanchez, Joseph Barboza, known as “The Animal," spent time in the Deer Lodge prison in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Barboza was a well-known mafia hitman turned government witness who came to the Montana prison under a different name for his protection. Sanchez said that not even the warden knew Barboza would be there.

Inmates quickly recognized him, and he was put in solitary confinement for his safety. Barboza was eventually released and moved to California where he later was shot and killed. Sanchez said before his death, he would send letters to the Montana Prison warden, which can be seen at the old prison.

Pettey and Sanchez said that new information and stories are being discovered all of the time as family members tell their stories and bring in old artifacts.

“During the time of the prison closing down, a lot of the workers – guards and captains and stuff – were given some of the objects,” said Sanchez. “To them at that time, it was just a piece of their job but to us, it’s a piece of history.”

The prison was left in the same condition it was in the day the last prisoner was transferred in 1979. The old prison is now part of a series of museums in Deer Lodge, which boasts about 50,000 visitors a year.

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