The Resident Government Council, or RGC, was established at the Washington State Penitentiary in April 1971. Its creation implemented one of the reforms announced the previous November by Director of the Department of Institutions William R. Conte. While the first year of the RGC was a qualified success, it quickly went downhill after that, its power and influence eclipsed by the major inmate clubs – the Lifers, Bikers, and BPFU.
The picture below, taken from a 1972 television broadcast by KING TV, shows members of the council in discussion. The first president of the RGC was Johnnie Harris, seen sitting at the head of the table.
The Resident Government Council in action
Most lifers in the Washington State Penitentiary in the 1970s lived in Eight Wing, next to Lifers’ Park where they held their banquets. Several hundred outside guests would come to a typical banquet. This somewhat out of focus picture is from one of them.
Guests arriving for the Bikers’ Banquet
Starting in the summer of 1971, B. J. Rhay permitted various inmate organizations to hold banquets to which outside guests were invited. This tradition was continued and expanded both by Rhay and his successor, Douglas Vinzant. One group to hold annual banquets was the Washington State Penitentiary Motorcycle Association, better known as the Bikers.
The Bikers took over most of an old abandoned power house in the middle of the institution (see site plan). This is where they had their club area, reconditioned motorcycles, made shanks, smoked dope, and ran their heroin trade enforcement activities. Like the other major inmate clubs, the Bikers had the only keys to their building.
The Bike Shop had barrels of gasoline, acetylene torches, vices, bench grinders, and every other tool needed to work on motorcycles. One wall inside the Bike Club was decorated with an enormous swastika.
At first the Bikers tested their choppers in the northwest corner of the main institution, just to the west of their club. Later they were permitted to ride their bikes in the Big Yard where they also held their annual banquet.
Chilling in the Big Yard
Entertainment at the banquet
Many motorcycle clubs were represented inside the prison and also came as invited guests
The last inmates from the Eight Wing riot were moved to the Big Yard as the sun was coming up Sunday morning, July 8, 1979. The inmates were told to sit in rows and remain silent. When one man stood, an officer fired a single shot in the air and yelled, “Sit Down!” The inmate sat and no one moved for another 40 minutes. When someone else got up and nothing happened, the rest of the inmates began to slowly mill about.
Inmates who had not destroyed their cell were identified and moved to other cell blocks in the penitentiary. The remainder – about 250 inmates – spent the next 42 days living in makeshift tents under the hot Walla Walla sun, eating TV dinners, and using porta-potties and makeshift outdoor showers.
Early morning in the Big Yard – July 8, 1979
With their cell block destroyed, inmates from the Eight Wing riot spent the summer of 1979 in the Big Yard. Emergency contracts were let and Eight Wing was not only repaired, it was totally rebuilt. Gone were the old porcelain sinks and toilets that could be easily broken. It their place were high security stainless steel prison combo fixtures. Bunks were bolted to the wall. There was new wiring, new lighting, improved ventilation, shatterproof windows, metal detectors, and fresh paint. Living conditions in the Big Yard were more primitive.
The date on the picture below is European style: day, month, year. In this case, the 16th day of July, 1979 – nine days after the riot in Eight Wing.
Living in the Big Yard
State Patrol troopers manning the wall
Weapons found in the Big Yard after the inmates returned to their cells