Piles of charred books in its library best symbolized how reason went up in smoke and flames during a riot at Walpole state prison early this weekend. The bitter smell of smoke and the bite of some lingering tear gas remained Saturday and Sunday when newsmen toured the maximum-security facility...
--Christian Science Monitor, March 20, 1972
It was just another 1970s prison riot, one of dozens and dozens across the country. Prisoners rioted at the Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts in March of 1972. One of many men whose job it was to regain control of the prison was State Trooper Robert Cerra. Thankfully, the chief victim in the violence was the prison library, where thousands of volumes were destroyed. But Bob Cerra didn't know that going in. All he knew was that he'd been ordered to leave his weapon behind when he did so.
When Bob mentioned that he'd been a part of this riot, I asked him to share the story, and he has kindly obliged with this account.
It was the early 1970’s and I was home having dinner with my family when I received the telephone call to immediately report to Walpole State Prison regarding a disturbance. I was what the Massachusetts State Police called a “Boot”, that’s a new and inexperienced Trooper.
What surprised me when I arrived at Walpole State Prison (Walpole State Prison has since been renamed Cedar Junction) was how few of us there were. Only one commissioned officer was at the scene and he spoke to us in front of the prison gate. He said the prisoners had ejected the guards, taken control of the prison and the inmates were in the process of setting fires.
His instructions were simple: don’t turn on any lights as the light bulbs had been filled with gasoline and would explode when the switch was thrown and don’t get separated from the team.
Then he told us that we were going in without our weapons and we were to secure them in a locked safe. He said the Governor did not want any of the prisoners to get hurt.
We were stunned. A senior trooper stepped forwarded and questioned the order. Most of us just stood there in disbelief. An argument ensued and finally the senior trooper stepped forward and announced “no guns no troopers”.
The commanding officer and some senior Troopers left the area for about 5 minutes and they returned. The commanding officer told us to keep our guns and follow him into the prison.
At the time I was too green to understand that I had been part of a mini-mutiny that mercifully was resolved. We marched into a “man trap”. They closed and locked the doors behind us and for all intents and purposes we were locked up in a maximum security prison with the rest of the rioting prisoners.
We worked our way through the prison grounds, teams of our officers put prisoners back in their cells, and we restored order. We learned later that one prisoner had been set on fire by his fellow inmates and some prisoners had locked themselves in the prison hospital.
Albert DeSalvo, AKA the Boston Strangler, was one of the prisoners who were barricaded inside the hospital. DeSalvo talked to the team leader through the locked door and “promised” not to come out or to cause any more problems.
The only amusing part of that riot is when the head of the “prisoner’s union” demanded to meet with our commanding officer. Their “Union President” was a bank robber who had disarmed an elderly bank guard, put the guard on his knees and shot him in the head.
Our commanding officer was a former US Marine drill instructor and his response to the “Union President’s” request for a meeting is not fit to print.
One incident demonstrated how out of control the prison had been. After securing the interior of the prison I was assigned to patrol outside the prison walls; I preferred that to being locked in a gun tower. About 15 minutes into my patrol I saw some activity in a wooded section adjacent to the prison. I found a clearing in the woods, with a campfire going and three men barbecuing some steaks. I ordered them to leave the area as we “had a problem in the prison”. They told me they “belonged here”.
I suddenly realized that that they were prison inmates, not campers, and I took control of the three of them. Each one told me that they were in for murder. I advised our command post via radio that I had three prisoners in custody in the woods outside the prison walls and that they had been “picnicking.” Our Captain shot back over the radio: “knock off the jokes, return to the command post and you better have three prisoners with you”. He met me at the prison gate and just shook his head as we marched the prisoners back inside the prison. I have retold that incident many times; I know that most people who hear it don’t believe the story.
Walpole State Prison, AKA Cedar Junction was a source of constant problems. One of those problems gained national attention, during a Presidential campaign, the public remembers the story by the name Willie Horton. The then Governor Michael Dukakis, a presidential hopeful, had a furlough program for inmates at Walpole State Prison. The first thing that one of those inmates did when he was released for his furlough was to go to a phone booth, call the witness who had identified him at his murder trial and tell her he was going to kill her. My job was to guard the woman. But that’s another story.