Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1952: Inmates revolt at Jackson prison 

By: - April 20, 2022 2:50 am

Officers haul off an inmate during 1952 uprising at Jackson prison | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

On April 20, 1952, an inmate mutiny took place at the State Prison of Southern Michigan commonly known as Jackson Prison. About 200 prisoners were protesting what they described as physical abuse from corrections officers.

The mutiny incident lasted for five days, resulting in $2.5 million damage to the institution. On May 1, 1952, Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, a second-term Democrat, blamed the uprising on the Republican-led state Legislature’s recent budget cuts. He praised the warden’s decision to offer a steak dinner to protestors in an effort to end the standoff and release nine prison guards as hostages.

“This was excellent psychology and in my mind the warden acted wisely on this point,” said Williams, according to Lansing State Journal reporting. “In that cell block were many men who were out of sympathy with leaders of the rebellion. These men had not eaten a square meal for days. The prospect of a good meal unquestionably increased the pressure on the leaders to surrender promptly and surrender the hostages. We traded steak and ice cream for nine human lives.”

Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams in 1959 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

GOP state chair Owen J. Cleary countered that the mutiny was the result of the Williams administration mismanagement of the prison system. Former GOP Gov. Kim Sigler also blamed Williams, the man who defeated him in the 1948 state gubernatorial election.  

“It is tragic that the governor, and through him all the good citizens of this state, had to kneel to the demands of a few hardened criminals who broke society’s laws, were paying the penalty and yet assumed command over the prison,” said Sigler, according to Lansing State Journal reporting at the time.

One of the leaders of the Jackson prison effort was “Crazy” Jack Hyatt. Two years earlier, he participated in a physical assault against Gov. Williams during an escape attempt at Marquette Prison. 

During a visit to review the prison’s budget with Emory Jacques, the prison’s warden, the governor, and a few staffers were standing near a kitchen door during the dinner hour for inmates when Hyatt and Ralph Stearns, another inmate, rushed through the door. Stearns grabbed Williams and dragged him at knife point into the kitchen. Williams was not injured but his bodyguard, Michigan State Police Sgt. George Kerr was stabbed. One inmate, John Halstead, was fatally shot by Kerr. Their idea was to escape with Williams as their hostage.

1952 inmate uprising at Jackson prison | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Hyatt, a native of Leamington, Ontario, was sentenced for armed robbery in 1945 to a term of 25 to 30 years. He was first sent to Marquette and later to Jackson prison. In March 1953, Hyatt was given another 15-to-23-year sentence for kidnapping guards during the incident. Six other inmates who participated in the mutiny were also given additional prison time. He was released from prison in 1962 and deported to Canada where he was born. 

His maximum term on the two charges would have expired on Nov. 12, 1965, but he had accumulated time for good behavior. However, Hyatt continued to run afoul with the law back home in Ontario.  

Williams served as Michigan governor until 1961. He later became a John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administration official and a member of the Michigan Supreme Court, serving from 1971 to 1986. Williams died on Feb. 2, 1988, at age 76. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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