Memories of a Prison Riot

 State police wait to enter Pontiac Correctional Center

State police wait to enter Pontiac Correctional Center

by Sarah Millender*

This story is the first in a series of stories from Prison Public Memory Project that will examine the 1978 riot at the Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Illinois. It is based on an interview I conducted on July 16th, 2017 with Elizabeth Armstrong, her mother, Mae Brewer, and her brother, Mark Brewer who lived across the street from the prison in 1978. I draw on accounts of the riot in local newspapers, The Pontiac Daily Leader and The Pantagraph. The riot was a critical event in the history of Illinois, its prison system, and the city of Pontiac.  It affected many lives: those of the people locked up in the prison and their families, those of the people who worked there and their families, and those in the community surrounding the prison.  

For Elizabeth (Brewer) Armstrong, the morning of July 22, 1978 began like most other Saturday mornings. Her mother was out running errands, her father was on his postal route, and she and her brother were watching cartoons in their home. They lived in a small house, just across the street from Pontiac Correctional Center located in Pontiac, Illinois.  It was a hot summer day, but to eleven-year-old Elizabeth, looking back now, the day began like any other. However, July 22, 1978 would go down in history as the date of Illinois's deadliest prison riot. By the end of the day, three prison guards would be dead, and dozens of incarcerated men and guards would be injured.

History of the Prison

Pontiac Correctional Center has been a fixture in this rural community of 11,600 since it opened as a boys' reformatory school in 1871. Since then, the prison has gone from being the Illinois Boys' Reformatory School, to the Illinois State Reformatory, to the maximum security Illinois State Penitentiary, and finally to the maximum security Pontiac Correctional Center. Perhaps contrary to most people's assumptions about prison locations, this prison does not sit on the outskirts of town. Rather, the prison is only a short walk away from a historic courthouse and shopping district. A pleasant, tree-lined neighborhood dotted with historic homes and original brick roads abuts the prison on three sides of its square lot. Today, Pontiac Correctional Center is separated from the neighborhood by two razor wire fences, but when Elizabeth Armstrong was growing up, the prison grounds were far more open.  

Growing Up in the Shadow of Pontiac Correctional Center

Growing up across the street from the prison was not the kind of experience that one might expect.  Elizabeth and her family did not live in fear of the prisoners in the looming cell houses or the guards in towers that sat on the prison lot. Instead, the prison yard where a jungle gym and a field for the visiting children of prisoners stood was a playground for her, her brother, and her friends: "We loved living across the street from there because it's a huge yard and so we would just go over there and we would play." She had little contact with the men incarcerated at the prison. Only during the summer and spring would the sounds of yelling men banging against the bars come through their open windows. It was also during the spring and summer that Elizabeth would see trustees -- incarcerated men who lived in the small medium security unit and were allowed to leave the campus for work -- come and do yard work across from her house. In fact, all of her memories of growing up across the street from the prison are happy. Only one day stands out as unhappy: July 22, 1978.

The Riot

The deadliest riot in Illinois prison history began in the mid-morning on that fateful Saturday. At 9:45 am, a group of prisoners jumped a line of 600 men who were moving from the prison yard back into the cell house. The men stormed the cell house and overwhelmed the guards who had been given the task of overseeing the movement of the huge group of prisoners. To this day, there are conflicting local theories about why the riot occurred, but most blame the excessive July heat, un-air-conditioned cell houses, overcrowding, understaffing at the prison, and the large number of gang members transported to the prison from the streets of Chicago. Whatever the cause, after the cell house was stormed, a day of chaos and violence began. 

 Guards examine weapons used by prisoners during the riot

Guards examine weapons used by prisoners during the riot

Two correctional officers, Stanley Cole and Robert Conkle, and a lieutenant, William Thomas, were immediately killed and three more officers were injured. The chaos of the riot increased when 500 more prisoners left the prison chapel where they had been watching a movie and joined the fracas. The officers, who at the time did not carry loaded weapons and were, according to reports, unprepared for a riot, were taken by surprise and easily overwhelmed. 

At 10 am, a tactical team began tending to the officers who had been attacked. They were soon joined by officers from the Pontiac Police Department, the Illinois State Police, and the Livingston County Sheriff's Department. They fired tear gas into the prison yard to subdue the rioting men, but their efforts made little difference. At 10:30 am, the prisoners set fire to a number of buildings on the prison's campus, including the chapel that was on the National Register of Historic Places. 

 Firefighters tend to burning prison buildings

Firefighters tend to burning prison buildings

At 10:45 am, the police established a perimeter around the prison, but that did not stop concerned onlookers from gathering near the entrances to the prison.  By 3 pm, most of the men had been contained in the prison yard. At that point, heavily-armed state troopers began returning prisoners to their cells. By 5 pm, all of the men were back in their cells, and finally, at 8 pm, all the men were accounted for. The riot had lasted over five hours, millions of dollars of damage had been done to prison buildings, three guards had died, and dozens of guards and prisoners were injured. 

Most Pontiac citizens followed news of the riot on local television, radio and in the newspapers. For Elizabeth Armstrong, her family, and her neighbors, however, the riot had practically happened in their front yards, only 100 feet from their homes. For them, the day was confusing, loud, frightening, but most of all, surprising because as Elizabeth pointed out, "on a normal day nothing really ever was going on over there." 

Through Elizabeth's Eyes

Elizabeth's mother, Mae Brewer, returned from running errands around 10 am. The riot at the prison had just begun, but the families living across the street were completely unaware of what was happening. Elizabeth and her family learned about the riot when a family friend, who had a police scanner, called the house and asked about the riot. Initially, Mae Brewer did not believe there was a riot. The prison across the street was quiet and still, like it normally was.

Moments later, however, the sound of sirens blaring in the prison broke the still quiet of the lazy Saturday morning. Elizabeth and Mark, her younger brother who was six-years-old at the time of the riot, watched from the window as more and more police began to arrive. They watched from the safety of their home as smoke began to curl into the bright sky when some prison buildings were set on fire. Even from the house, she could see men who were not participating in the riot sitting in the prison yard. 

Elizabeth, with amazing recall, remembers the sensory overload of that day. The sight of hundreds of guns and police officers, the surprise of the riot at what was usually a quiet prison, the smell of burning buildings, and the sounds of sirens overwhelmed Elizabeth: "You were seeing a lot of things, you were hearing a lot of things, you were smelling things, the smoke and stuff like that. So it was just a lot to take in for an eleven-year-old kid."

For the first time in her life, she was scared of the prison and she wanted to move away. Elizabeth ran to her mother and told her that she wanted to leave; Elizabeth wanted to move to her grandmother's house, which was located in the nearby town of Forrest, Illinois. Her fears only increased when a uniformed officer knocked on their door and told them they had to stay inside.

 Guard surveys damage done to prison yard

Guard surveys damage done to prison yard

The scariest moment of all, the moment that truly made Elizabeth want to leave their home and prison behind, was when she learned from a reporter that three guards had died during the course of the riot. Reporters from all over the state had come to Pontiac to report on the prison riot, but it was 1978, and no one had cell phones. Reporters went from door to door in the neighborhood, asking Pontiac residents to use their home phones so that they could phone in stories to their newspapers. Mae Brewer had been turning away reporters all morning, but she eventually let one use her phone. Elizabeth listened as the reporter spoke to his colleagues: "so we were listening to what he's saying and that's how we found out before anyone else that three guards had been killed."

 Camera crews capture images of prison wreckage

Camera crews capture images of prison wreckage

Elizabeth's mother did not let her and her brother leave the house, but they and their neighbors watched as the riot unfolded and finally ended across the street.

Looking Back

 Elizabeth Armstrong on July 16, 2017

Elizabeth Armstrong on July 16, 2017

Although one might think that life in Pontiac was forever changed by the riot, Elizabeth remembers that her life almost immediately went back to the way it had been before. While the day of the riot had been chaotic and overwhelming, the prison almost immediately returned to being a normal sight and presence in Elizabeth's life. In fact, she remembers returning the next day to play on the prison's grass and jungle gym. She says that she and other neighborhood children were not stopped by their parents or even prison guards from playing on prison grounds after the riot: "[F]or us, that day of the riot was really the only day where we were restricted and constricted in our movements and what we could do."

Looking back today, she said that she quickly accepted the fact that riots were a part of life at the prison. But when she reached high school age, Elizabeth began to have recurring dreams in which prisoners would knock on their door. Her voice slightly cracking, Elizabeth gave this explanation for her dreams: "It was just there and it wasn't like you could forget about it, because it's this looming huge building."

Today

Today, Elizabeth is an elementary school teacher in Joliet, Illinois, another prison town. In fact, Joliet and the surrounding smaller towns used to play host to two large prisons: Joliet Correctional Center and Stateville Correctional Center. Although Joliet Correctional Center was closed in 2002, Stateville is still open. While Stateville is, according to Elizabeth, an infamous site, she believes that living near these two prisons has had no effect on her life. Growing up across the street from the prison in Pontiac, however, did impact Elizabeth's life: "The prison is a part of me, whether I like it or not."

 Elizabeth Armstrong gives author tour of the neighborhood next to Pontiac Correctional Center on July 16, 2017

Elizabeth Armstrong gives author tour of the neighborhood next to Pontiac Correctional Center on July 16, 2017

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*Sarah Millender is an intern with Prison Public Memory Project. She is currently a sophomore at Grinnell College, where she plans to major in history and political science. She is originally from Portland, Oregon. Sarah is working with the Project in Illinois, and she has focused on developing bibliographies of source material, conducting oral history interviews, and developing stories based on their interviews.