Image 3aI first went behind the walls of the Washington State Penitentiary in July 1976. I was a young architect working for the agency responsible for many of the state’s institutions, including prisons. It was a hot Walla Walla summer day and everywhere I looked there were men lounging about: talking, laughing smoking, playing music. As I walked through what everybody called “People’s Park,” it was clear from the aroma that it wasn’t just tobacco the men were smoking.

When we entered the big cell house my head turned immediately to a striking blonde in a mini-skirt walking down the tier, two stories above us. “You mean they let women in here?” I asked my escort. Without breaking stride he answered: “That’s not a woman.”

I was young. I was naive. For a while I assumed all prisons were like that.

They weren’t. In 1976, there wasn’t another prison on the planet quite like the Washington State Penitentiary.

I worked for the Department of Social and Health Services for the next five years. That was how I became an occasional witness to some of the events in my book, Unusual Punishment, and how I got to know some of the superintendents, headquarters administrators, and other other people who play significant roles in the story. It wasn’t long before I realized I was witnessing something extraordinary.

After DSHS, I worked for a large architectural firm in Seattle. Five years later, I started my own consulting business, providing planning, research, and policy analysis services to correctional agencies in various parts of the country.  In 1993, I gave myself a sabbatical to do research so I could write about what I considered an heroic struggle to regain control of the prison and create a modern correctional system. It quickly became apparent that I couldn’t write about how the penitentiary climbed out of the hole into which it had stumbled without telling the story of how it stumbled in the first place. I read fifteen years of newspapers and constructed a timeline of events. Armed with a general understanding of what had happened, I interviewed dozens of people who were involved, ranging from convicts to governors. After writing a few chapters, the distractions of raising a family and earning a living intervened. The writing languished for 17 years.

Fast forward to 2010, when I retired. With time on my hands, I returned to “the book.” As I wrote, I found areas where additional research was necessary. I spent days in the state archives pouring over thousands of documents. I conducted more interviews. Then I wrote.

The product is something of a life’s work. I hope you enjoy it.


5 thoughts on “ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  1. Chris; it’s great to see how close you are to having this out for the public, can’t wait to get a copy and read it. This facility is ery close to home with all of the time I spent there

  2. Chris: Reading your website and the information about your book takes me back over fifty years to the WPS Inmate Development Project ( an experiment in corrections) funded by NIMH between 1964 and 1966. As a WSU Ph.D. candidate at the time, I was part of the evaluation/research staff. We spent weekends and the summer of 1966 in the project area housed in what was the Guidance and Reception units, mostly interviewing inmates. It was an interesting experience and at the end of the project, the inmates produced a publication entitled “Projector”. Even then, it was clear (and stated by the inmates) that the guards did not run the prison, the inmates did. I can share the publication with you if you are interested.

  3. I very much enjoyed reading this book, as Bob Rhay was my grandmothers 3rd husband and I spent quite a lot of time with him. This really puts many of his stories in perspective. Thanks for doing this…

  4. Mr. Murray-I am reading your book, which puts into perspective my own experience at Walla Walla. In July 1972, I was a 22 year-old staff member of the Washington State Human Rights Commission that was sent inside the walls for a week to interview inmates (“residents”) and staff about prison reforms. This was likely an attempt to diffuse some of the racial conflict that the prison was experiencing. I had free movement throughout the prison with only a prisoner-escort, and I interviewed about 50 people, spending about 13 hours a day “inside”. (Decades later, one of my friends, who became a senior corrections official, told me that I was lucky to come out alive.) The experience was intense for a young, naive junior staffer during an era of societal change, and I came away realizing that some of those guys really aren’t so nice—and that assessment included both staff and inmates. Your book touches upon one of the more bizarre interviews that I had with a prison doctor, who told me that most of the inmates were there because they had feminine personality traits, as verified by the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory test. I found this to be wacky, especially since my brother was getting his masters degree in guidance counseling and had administered that test to me and other family members as part of his schooling; and I registered slightly high on the femininity scale because of my active interest in music!
    My work led to a report (a copy of which I still have) entitled, “A Study of Attitudes About Prison Reform at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, Washington During the Past Three Years”, which was provided to the prison administration. I have no clue whether it had any impact. Your book brings back a flood of memories and stories and paints a vivid picture of the prison’s environment. I saw first-hand much of what you have written about, but at the time I did not have the context that your book provides. Thank you for this excellent work.

  5. I grew up in Walla Walla. Went to Prospect Point, Garrison, and Wa Hi. We were neighbors to Bob Freeman. I was in the same grade as his oldest daughter. I grew up riding bikes up and around the prison.
    After I got out of the Navy in August 1973 I returned home. Right away my father said you need a State job so I got a job as guard with the understanding I would transition to the hospital as an orderly eventually a physician assist.
    I didn’t last month as a guard. The place was dangerous. They turn you loose with all these criminals and what have you got to help you. Keys! That’s it KEYS! I quit and from the sounds of it I’m glad I did.
    I did ok without a State job

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