On April 20th, 1952, a pair of maximum security prisoners overpowered a guard, took his keys, and released hundreds of fellow inmates. This began 5 days of riots that ended the life of one prisoner and caused millions of dollars in damage.

The Spark of Unrest

Prior to the events of that chaotic day in 1952, prisoners of the Michigan State Prison in Jackson had complained of subpar food and living conditions, and claimed they were being physically abused by the guards. These simmering feelings came to a boil, reportedly, when inmates heard radio reports of another prisoner uprising in New Jersey.

Related: Spectacular Escape Attempt From Jackson's Michigan State Prison

The over 200 prisoners were led, in part, by "Crazy" Jake Hyatt, who just two years earlier had attempted to break out of Marquette Prison by taking then Governor G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams hostage. Williams was visiting to review the prison's budget with Warden Emory Jacques. The attempt failed, and Hyatt was eventually transferred to Jackson.

Prisoners Ask for Reform, Politicians Play the Blame Game

While inmates spoke with the media about what they described as physical abuse from corrections officers from inside the prison, Democrats and Republicans cast blame upon one another. Governor Williams blamed budget cuts made by the Republican-led legislature, and the GOP State Chair Owen Clearly blamed Williams for the mismanagement of the Michigan corrections system.

Eventually, a list of demands was printed in a local paper, and prisoners agreed to return to their cell blocks. While inmates hoped for changes in their living conditions, guards watching them file back into their cells could be overheard saying "We need to stop coddling these criminals, there will be changes, but they won't like them".

The uprising in cell block 15 was the inspiration behind the 1954 film, Riot in Cell Block 11, a movie Quentin Tarintino calls "the best prison movie ever made". When you see the scenes captured below, you'll understand why someone in Hollywood felt this chaos would translate well onto the Silver Screen.

The 1952 Jackson, Michigan Prison Riot

Protesting harsh treatment, poor medical care, and bad food, inmates of Jackson's Michigan State Prison held 9 guards hostage for 5 days of riots in April 1952.

Gallery Credit: Scott Clow

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