Former Stateville captain recalls ’71 riot
By Brian Stanley firstname.lastname@example.org June 16, 2012 9:34PM
Updated: July 18, 2012 6:35AM
Whenever I’ve met someone with a lot of great stories I think, “You should write a book.”
Unfortunately, I then realized Donald Cartwright already has. But my loss of several columns worth of material is a gain for local history buffs or someone trying to find some summer reading for Dad.
“Duke” Cartwright started as a guard at Stateville in 1960 and retired as a major from Joliet Correctional Center in 1993. “Tough,” which chronicles 30 years in the big house, is available on Amazon.com as a paperback or a download for Kindle.
It’s easy to see how Cartwright, still imposing at 75, is the kind of guy you would want watching over prisoners. But hearing how the tough guy beat the other “tough guys” by using his wits impressed me the most and he was gracious enough to tell it to me again and let me use it here.
Cartwright was a Stateville captain on June 25, 1971, when a baseball team from Romeoville arrived to play against a prison team as a “night yard” activity. Plenty of teams visited and usually lost, but Duke believes that was less a result of intimidation than the warden’s competitive strategy.
“When the team arrived we’d give them the full tour, which was walking about a mile and a half in the evening heat, then we’d feed them a good heavy meal and then take to the diamond,” he recalled.
As shift commander, Duke had been given a brand new Johnson radio to carry on his belt. Unfortunately, purchasing a portable for each of the three commanders at $800 a pop meant funding to install base units beside the main one in the armory would have to wait.
About 400 inmates watched their team beat the visitors 6 to 2, which was a better ratio than Duke had with eight other guards to watch them.
When the inmates of B House lined up to return to their cells, everything was routine. But about 100 yards into the march a prisoner at the front turned around and yelled out, “Get them.”
A large group began rushing at the guards and Cartwright compared his telling them to stop with, “whistling in the wind.”
“The inmates did not want to kill us, they merely beat us up a little,” he said.
But the overwhelming numbers made the situation deadly and unacceptable. Though Cartwright and his men were putting up a good fight, it had to be stopped before they were killed.
“While they were striking me, I was swinging at the inmates with the radio in my hand,” Cartwright said. “I don’t know why I thought to do what I did.”
Cartwright knew the towers didn’t have new radios installed yet. The prisoners did not.
No one was in the armory at the time, but if there had been they would’ve been the only person in the prison outside the riot to hear Duke say “Tower (guards), shoot these sons of bitches!”
The prisoners who were hitting the captain heard him. They stopped hitting him. They started running for the cell house as fast as they could. The other prisoners began following.
Cartwright was able to get in one last shot at one of those who’d been beating him...smashing an $800 Johnson radio on his head.
Cartwright and one of his lieutenants were still able to move and started running after the prisoners.
“But there were two of us and a few hundred of them, so we didn’t chase them too hard because we really didn’t want to catch them,” he chuckled.
Instead they pulled up outside the cell house and locked the door, waiting for reinforcements to arrive. One guard never returned to duty from his injuries. Ballgames were suspended for the rest of the year.
Duke Cartwright is tough. As the riot of ‘71 showed, he’s also smart.