Dakota Datebook

Prison Riot

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


On this day in 1957, newspapers across the country were reporting a prison riot at the State Penitentiary in Bismarck the previous day. The trouble started late in the morning, when 220 prisoners refused to go back to work in the binder-twine factory. The convicts complained of poor food, about the actions of a particularly hated guard, and inadequate time for recreation.


The inmates went back to their cellblock but refused to enter their cells. The situation escalated about two hours later, when they barricaded themselves inside and began smashing things.


Four prison guards hid in the boiler room and the hospital, where they were able to call out on a telephone. Warden Nygaard, who was in Jamestown, told them to remain hidden; he didn’t want the rioters to take them hostage. State Patrolmen, Bismarck policemen and two fire trucks soon surrounded the prison.


A United Press reporter managed to climb a ladder and talk with five of the strike leaders through the bars of a window. The men said prison guards were stealing money and valuables from them. They also told of an abusive guard who would go into Bismarck and then come back and taunt the prisoners with tantalizing stories about their wives and sweethearts.


A reporter for the Associated Press was told the trouble actually started when a prisoner got thrown into solitary confinement. Guard Tom Wrangum confirmed he threw an inmate into the hole the previous day, but he refused to elaborate.


The prisoners demanded to see Governor John Davis, Attorney General Leslie Burgum or Warden O. J. Nygaard. Nygaard hurried back to Bismarck, where he told reporters he had a pretty good idea of who was leading the revolt – about 7 or 8 chronic troublemakers.


Matters came to an abrupt head late that afternoon. A “flying wedge” of prison guards charged the rioters with rifles and shotguns firing above their heads. The Fargo Forum reported, “What threatened to become a full-blown riot . . . folded up like an accordion after a tense five hours when officers used tear gas on 220 convicts.”


Three prisoners were reported wounded, and the four hidden guards were freed. The men went to bed without supper that night because food in the kitchen was contaminated by disinfectant that was broken open during the smashing spree.


When asked how he was going to proceed in the aftermath, Warden Nygaard said he was going to ignore the convicts’ charges, saying they were “cooked up” accusations.


Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm



Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Wednesday May 8, 1957: p 1.

The Fargo Forum. Wednesday May 8, 1957: p 1.

Panama City Herald. Wednesday May 8, 1957: p 8.

Galvaston Daily News. Wednesday May 8, 1957: p 1.


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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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