Calvin May and some of his classmates in the Class of 1972 at Cincinnatus High School in upstate New York pondered a big question: Which among us would be the first one to make it onto the front page of a newspaper?
The answer was revealed on the July 24, 1980, cover of the Idaho Statesman featuring Calvin May.
But the manner and venue that led to May’s front-page debut were beyond anything he or his classmates had imagined.
Prison riot. Correctional officer taken hostage.
Thirty-five years later, May is still an Idaho prison correctional officer. Now 61, he works at the same prison and still carries the same Bible he carried that day. He also still carries the lessons he learned and the insight he gained.
For the first time, he is sharing the details of his ordeal with the public.
New town, new career
After the death of his girlfriend in a car accident, May jettisoned college life at Ohio’s Cedarville College and rejoined the Army.
While he was stationed in San Antonio, two things happened that affected the trajectory of his life: He met his future wife, Shannon, and on impulse, he bought a Bible that had caught his eye in a San Antonio airport gift shop.
In spring 1978, while traveling to see his wife’s parents in Eugene, Ore., the couple stopped in Boise to visit a friend who worked at the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise. Intrigued, May spent a day at the prison to learn more about the job.
May found himself at a crossroad. He had career options. He could stay in the Army, join his father at the Smith Corona typewriter factory in New York, or move to Boise and try to get on with the Idaho Department of Correction. He opted for Boise. In September 1979, May was hired as a correctional officer at ISCI.
The training program was informal. “When I started there was no academy. It was all on-the-job,” May said.
An inmate helped May learn the ropes. On his first day at a new station, a supervisor told May to find the key on a large key ring that opened one of the cell blocks, or housing units, and to go into the unit’s office, find the log book and figure out what to do. As May sat in the office trying to do just that, the inmate approached. “You must be new guy,” the inmate said. “Well, you gotta do a tier check.”
May responded, ‘What’s that?’”
It is an inmate-welfare check. The inmate told May how to do tier checks, inmate counts and other duties.
“It is not like that now,” May said.
A phone call or deadbolt would have been helpful
Ten months later, a correctional officer stationed at the medium-security Unit 13 went on vacation. May, 26 years old and the father of an 18-month-old boy with a baby on the way, was a relief officer, so he took the officer’s place.
Open less than three months, Unit 13 was the prison’s newest housing unit, with 96 cells for male inmates. May conducted tier checks and inmate counts, opened doors for inmates and sent them to appointments.
“The department was told this is a state-of-the-art building that is riot proof, and if an officer is in the office he will always be safe,” May said.
He felt confident in the new high-tech building with its thick glass windows.
On the morning of July 23, May’s second day of covering the vacationing officer, some officers in another unit conducted a “shakedown” of inmates. They confiscated contraband.
“Back then the inmates wore civilian clothes,” May said. “They did not wear blues like they do now. And they had quite a bit more property than they do now.”
Inmates would barter items, even though bartering typically was prohibited. So prison workers periodically conducted searches and confiscated any items that did not legitimately belong to an inmate.
That day, officers filled three big laundry carts with contraband — televisions, guitars, books, shoes and items believed to have been stolen from other inmates — and wheeled them across the prison yard. Inmates en route to the dining hall did not like what they saw. Around noon, they starting breaking windows.
Soon a full-blown riot broke out.
The prison had a limited supply of radios, and they were unreliable. Pagers were newfangled, and cellphones mere prototypes. Land-line telephones were the primary form of communication. The prison kept a phone list of people for correctional officers to contact in an incident, including officers stationed in each unit.
When the riot began, all employees were contacted and told to evacuate except May. Unit 13 had not yet been added to the phone list, which was updated once a year. “In all the hubbub and chaos, I was forgotten,” May said.
He learned about the riot when several inmates who did not want to be involved in it came to Unit 13 seeking cover. May called the command center. He learned all other staffers had been evacuated except for himself and Officer Lynart Orr, who had been taken hostage.
May thought he still had a chance to escape from his office by going onto the roof. But the roof escape hatch had been welded shut to block prisoner escapes.
“In 1978 they had an inmate escape from Unit 11 by going up on the roof,” so the state welded shut all roof hatches, he said.
May was instructed to check in with the command center every 15 minutes while prison leaders tried to figure out how to rescue him.
Meanwhile, rioting inmates came inside the unit and tried to open the office door. The unit had been designed to be super-secure — but the office door had no deadbolt.
“They broke through the front door pretty fast,” May said. “They just jimmied the door. I called control in a panic.”
The shift commander told May to go to the unit’s basement and lock himself in a closet. He did. It did not take the inmates long to find him.
They come down the stairs. I can hear them. I thought I was done. I thought they would just kill me. I could not process the information and come up with a different conclusion. I start praying. I prayed to God. I said, ‘Protect my wife, my son and my unborn child.’
Idaho Department of Correctional Officer Calvin May
Unit 11 Cell 67
Ten to 15 inmates surrounded May and took him upstairs.
“A big discussion ensued as to what to do with me,” he said. “There was a lot of shouting. There was a lot of noise. … It was just chaos.
“I did not have the training to know what to do. My common-sense approach was to say as little as possible and do nothing that would antagonize or make the situation worse.”
The inmates decided to take May to Unit 11 Cell 67, where they were holding Orr hostage. The cell belonged to one of the inmates leading negotiations with prison officials over Orr’s release.
May sat in the cell. He took the pocket-sized King James Bible out of his shirt pocket. He had carried it to work every day.
“I thought, ‘God, give me a good scripture to read.’”
He went to Mark 1:14-15: Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: Repent ye, and believe the gospel.
“The second I read those two verses, my whole demeanor just totally, completely and utterly changed,” May said. “I just knew in my heart of hearts I was going to get out of there safely. It was a spiritual experience. I just felt free to take it all in. To go with whatever happened. I came to grips with the understanding that this was going to turn out OK and I was going to go home safely.”
Among the inmates, factions developed. Some wanted to keep May and Orr safe and use them as a negotiating tool. Others wanted to kill them.
The group holding the hostages asked for a television reporter and photographer to be brought in to hear their demands and to provide confirmation that the hostages were OK.
The inmates told the reporter the contraband search was the uprising’s catalyst. They said they wanted better medical treatment and drug rehabilitation programs, better vocational and education training, a review of the parole system, more pay for their labor in prison industries, improved visiting conditions and better access to recreational facilities.
May said his captors treated him well. They let him call his wife a couple of times to let her know he was OK.
The inmates came into the cell at 5 o’clock and 6 o’clock to watch themselves on the TV news. Through the news reports, May learned the extent of the riot. The inmates set fires, burning at least eight vehicles, breaking glass and destroying equipment. Temperatures that day topped 100 degrees, adding to the mayhem.
Negotiations continued into the evening with prison leaders and representatives of the governor’s office, who agreed to put together a citizen committee to investigate the inmates’ complaints.
Seven hours after abducting May, the inmates agreed to release him.
“I come out the gate, people are cheering and clapping,” he said. “I said, ‘I want to go home.’ I call my wife. I tell her, ‘I’m on my home.’”
Orr remained a hostage. Four inmates who had been negotiating the hostages’ release got nervous. Other inmates were getting out of control, with some sniffing paint thinner and other intoxicants.
“There is a lot of sniffing going on right now in the yard,” Idaho Correction Director C.W. “Bill” Crowl told the media.
The four inmates wanted to get Orr and themselves out and called prison officials to arrange a rescue.
At 4:45 a.m., Crowl ordered a raid for 5:30 a.m.
“The situation has deteriorated, and we believe no one is in control,” Crowl told the media. “They indicate they cannot control the situation after daylight. ... A hostage’s life is at stake.”
He called the rescue effort a “calculated gamble” but said “the odds are in our favor,” partly because four inmates in the cell block had secretly agreed to assist in the rescue.
A 17-person commando squad quietly slipped through the predawn darkness. In less than four minutes, they rescued the remaining hostage and brought out the four inmates who had helped bringing the 18-hour insurrection to an end. No one was injured during the raid. The riot had caused $2.7 million in damage.
“Hostage freed; pen riot ends” the Idaho Statesman headline blared July 25. “SWAT teams free guard in precision 3-minute raid.”
“I was not harmed. The other officer wasn’t harmed,” May said. “Nobody was harmed, which was a miracle, because you have close to 500 inmates rioting and they are under the influence of any kind of substance they can get. … It is very volatile to have 500 inmates all loose at the same time with no accountability.”
Orr resigned less than a month later, May said, and the two have not seen or talked to each other since 1980.
When asked at a news conference why the riot occurred, Gov. John Evans replied, “The answer is the frustrations of prison. Prison is hell. The heat, the temperature, the problems of parole, the problems of missing their families. All of these entered into the drama of the crisis and of the riot. Once the mob gained control of the institution and held those two hostages, there was little that the administration could do but attempt to secure their release.”
Evans also laid some blame on the Idaho Legislature, which had refused to give the prison more money.
Our institution is overcrowded. We went to the Legislature last winter and emphasized that point. … that we could have a riot occur this summer.
Idaho Governor John Evans on the riot
After the riot, the Legislature came through with more money for additional staff and pay increases. The state also approved building two more prison towers, including one in the center of the prison yard, to better monitor the perimeter and inmates’ movements.
No Idaho correctional officer has been taken hostage since that summer. ISCI’s last escape attempt, in 1990, was quickly thwarted when a tower officer shot and injured one inmate and the other two inmates quickly surrendered.
All new correction officers go through a 10-week-long training program that includes four weeks at the Peace Officer Standards and Training Academy and four weeks of field training.
The missteps that led to May being taken hostage have been corrected: Roof hatches are no longer welded shut, better communication policies are in place, and Unit 13’s door now has a deadbolt.
May has worked for IDOC 35 years. He is one of the longest-serving employees in the department’s history.
In 2005, IDOC made a training video of his hostage experience.
“All this was not for naught,” said May, who worked on the prison’s crisis negotiation team from 1996 to 2011.
As harrowing as the experience was, May said it made him a better correctional officer by giving him insight into working with inmates: “Treat people like you like to be treated yourself. The golden rule. It works in prison. You cannot fake that. If you are not genuine, the inmates know instantly.”
May said the experience also helped him better understand the volatile nature of prisons, where hundreds or thousands of society’s most violent offenders can be housed together with a scant number of correctional officers trying to detect, prevent and avoid being caught in assaults or uprisings.
“It could happen any day at any prison in this country,” he said. “Any person can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it can be your day.”
May said he also understands the importance of ensuring inmates leave prison in a better state than they arrived. That cannot be accomplished by locking up inmates warehouse-style without treatment and training programs, he said.
“Most inmates are going to get out of prison at some point,” he said. “What do we want in this person that is being released and returned to society? Do we want a guy that has become more sophisticated in his behavior? No. What we want is a person who has analyzed his life, thought about his life and said, ‘I need to make some changes.’
“That’s powerful. That is what you want. That is what we are striving for.
“We want these guys to serve their time and not come back.”
I see this job as a calling. Not everybody does. I do everything I can within the bounds of the rules to help people succeed. It is incredibly gratifying. For me it is an opportunity. I have an opportunity to steer people in the choices they are making.
May still brings the Bible to work every day. When the cover became tattered in the 1990s, May had it repaired while he was on vacation, so he would not have to go to work without it.
“’Do not wreck this Bible,’” he told the book repairman. “’I’ve got this thing going, and I do not want to interrupt that.’”
“I am just grateful and thankful, because God has protected me all these years that I have worked here.”
Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell