Eyewitness 1962: Western Pen inmates take protest to the top
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While convicts protesting atop a water tower at Western Penitentiary provided free entertainment for many residents of Pittsburgh's Woods Run neighborhood, one young boy was outraged.
Police created no-go zones on some of the streets around the prison after 13 inmates climbed onto its water tower on June 25 and 26, 1962. The prisoners said they wanted to draw attention to what they claimed was harsh discipline.
The enhanced security separated David Chulack, 9, from a makeshift ballfield on Doerr Street next to the state pen. "We've got bases painted in the street but the police won't let us go down there to play baseball," he complained in a story that appeared June 29. The situation, he told Post-Gazette reporter Alvin Rosensweet, was "horrible."
The top of the tower was about 135 feet above the prison yard. State Commissioner of Correction Arthur T. Presse and Warden James F. Maroney had "emphasized that they will not risk guards' lives by sending them up after the convicts," according to a June 30 Post-Gazette report. Officials opted to rely on summer heat and thirst to force down the convicts.
By the fifth day of the protest, daytime temperatures approached 90 degrees. The prisoners had been able to get some drinking water from the tower, but the supply had deteriorated. "To an old sign [painted on the tower] that said 'No water. Help?' the convicts added the word 'Mud,'" PG reporter Vince Johnson wrote on June 30. "Apparently they wanted the public to know that the water tank contained nothing but sediment."
Observers watching through binoculars reported that the inmates had been arguing among themselves. "Today the situation probably will be aggravated," Johnson wrote. "They have nine candy bars left and 10 men to eat them."
By Sunday, July 1, the end of a hot, dry weekend, only three men remained on the tower. "The convicts scrawled the word 'RAIN' on the tower in a gesture of supplication and circled the catwalk in a rhythmic tribal ritual," according to a July 2 story.
The next day two more men climbed down, leaving only Charles Cannen Miller, a murderer serving a life sentence who "acted as if his perch were a throne," Johnson wrote on July 3. "Warden Maroney said that apparently Miller wants to become the tower-sitting champion of Western Penitentiary."
"Miller seemed both alert and active," Johnson wrote. "When the Gateway Clipper passed the penitentiary with a boatload of passengers, Miller responded to their yells by waving."
The overnight forecast called for showers, which would both cut the heat and provide Miller with water "to enable him to ease his thirst."
The rain turned out to be a mixed blessing at best. Early on the morning of July 3, "the rain and chill ... were too much for Miller, who descended at 5:55 a.m." The protest was over.
Warden Maroney had said he would not negotiate with inmates until the demonstration ended. Miller's surrender meant that "all 13 will be given a chance to air their grievances against conditions in the penitentiary," the warden promised in a Post-Gazette story on July 4.
Western Penitentiary opened in 1882 and served for many years as one of the state's maximum-security facilities. It closed in 2005, but has reopened, operating as State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh. It now houses minimum- to lower-medium-security inmates with drug and alcohol problems.
First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 am