I 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.