This aerial photograph shows the configuration of the Washington State Penitentiary in 1970. The main compound (i.e. excluding Industries and the Big Yard) is about ten acres.
Variously known as Bob, Bobby. B. J., warden, superintendent, and Mr. Rhay, B. J. Rhay has the distinction of being the longest serving superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary in the prison’s history.
A decorated fighter pilot from World War II, Rhay returned to Walla Walla in 1945 where he got a degree in sociology from Whitman College and married the prison superintendent’s daughter. When his father-in-law joined the ranks of the unemployed due to a change in the governor’s mansion, Rhay went to work for Earle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame) on Gardner’s 1950s radio and TV show, “Court of Last Resort.”
Rhay was appointed superintendent in 1957 at the age of 35, making him the youngest prison superintendent in the country. Twenty years later, at the end of his tenure, he had been superintendent of the same maximum security prison longer than anyone else.
Rhay was the father of seven daughters, all raised in the superintendent’s residence in the shadow of the prison walls.
B. J. Rhay died in June, 2012, at the age of 91.
When he became superintendent in 1977, Douglas Vinzant was the first new superintendent the penitentiary had know in twenty years. A Methodist minister from Mississippi, Vinzant was brilliant, well-read, witty, and (when he wanted to be) charming. Vinzant came to Washington State in 1974 after short terms as warden at Concord and Walpole prisons in Massachusetts. Before his appointment as penitentiary superintendent, Vinzant was director of the state’s Bureau of Juvenile Rehabilitation.
Vinzant remained in Walla Walla for twelve months, during which time he also served as director of the Division of Prisons. While he wore two hats for much of his tenure in Washington adult corrections, Vinzant clearly enjoyed being superintendent more than being director. In his words, “When I was superintendent and I spent a dollar’s worth of energy, I probably got fifty, sixty cents’ worth of work done. When I spent a dollar’s worth of energy as a director, I might have got a dime’s worth of work done. At the institutional level, you’re really dealing with the problems of corrections. When you’re at the director level, you’re simply babysitting politicians and the agenda of the governor rather than the agenda of corrections.”
His tenure in both jobs was marked by controversy and ended in chaos, blood, and acrimony.