The inmate population at the penitentiary fell dramatically from 1965 until the summer of 1974 when it rapidly reversed course. For the last years of the 1970s, crowding exacerbated all of the problems the penitentiary was experiencing.
On New Year’s eve day, 1974 inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary took hostages in one of the cell blocks and in the prison hospital. In this audio tape, associate superintendent for custody at the time of the incident, Jim Harvey, describes how the hostages were rescued.
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.
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.
A furlough program created by the state legislature in 1971 allowed prison superintendents to approve furloughs of up to thirty days for inmates to live outside the prison. By February 1972, more than 2,000 furloughs had been approved across the state. A handful of inmates had failed to return, but there had been no major problems. Then, on a Saturday evening early in the month, state trooper Frank Noble made what started out as a routine traffic stop. An inmate from Walla Walla, out on his second furlough, was behind the wheel. When Noble approached the car the inmate pulled a gun and shot three times. Noble died at the scene and the inmate was arrested within the hour. Furlough requirements were tightened and the program continued.
Correctional officer Jim Hartford was assigned to the Walla Walla County Courthouse on Tuesday, April 5, 1977 during the trial of two inmates charged with assault. While on break, Hartford picked up a cigarette lighter from under the table in the law library next to the courtroom. When he tested it, it exploded. It had been packed with match heads, waiting for some unsuspecting person to pick it up to see if it worked. Hartford lost most of the fingers on his right hand that day.
Over the next four days there was documented retaliation by correctional officers in the segregation unit. On Sunday, April 10, 1977, inmates set fire to the chapel and ransacked the inmate store. Because it happened on Easter Sunday, it became known at the Easter Riot. The resulting lockdown lasted 46 days and resulted in dramatic changes at the penitentiary.
Hartford was in the hospital for 11 days and off work for three months. When he returned to work at the penitentiary, inmates would hold up their hand in grotesque contortion and catcall him “claw.” The picture below is from a newspaper article from the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.
On Easter Sunday 1977, five days after officer Jim Hartford had his hand blown apart by a booby-trapped cigarette lighter, inmates set fire to the chapel and ransacked the inmate store. The resulting 46-day lockdown was the longest and most consequential in the penitentiary’s history up to that time. Superintendent Rhay called a meeting with the inmate Resident Council where he told the inmates “I’m the one you have to deal with, baby.” It didn’t turn out that way. (Click on images to make them larger.)
On Saturday May 31, 1975, the adult corrections headquarters building in the state capital was bombed. The explosion claimed no casualties, but a hole was blown through the concrete floor two doors from Director Hal Bradley’s office. Glass was scattered over a wide area.
An anonymous caller contacted a Seattle newspaper with instructions to look for a document in a telephone booth. Among other things, the lengthy communique demanded the removal of Associate Superintendent Harvey, and a doctor and nurse at the Washington State Penitentiary.
The group claiming responsibility called themselves the George Jackson Brigade, after the author of the best seller, Soledad Brother, who was killed trying to escape from a California prison in 1971. At the time, hardly anyone had heard of the George Jackson Brigade. The bombing raised the brigade’s profile, as did their subsequent attempts to finance their revolutionary agenda through criminal activity. This was not the only time the Brigade was to come to the attention of Washington corrections, or of the penitentiary.
The article and picture are from the June 1, 1975 edition of the The Daily Olympian.
In late June 1977, after twenty years as superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary, B. J. Rhay was replaced by Douglas Vinzant. Rhay was transferred to Olympia to lead an initiative called the “mini-prison” project. A few days after Rhay arrived in the state capital, the governor vetoed the appropriation for the mini-prisons. Rhay collected a few paychecks then accepted a job as commissioner of corrections in Montana.
The accompanying picture is from a scan of a print of a microfilm of a newspaper – which is why the image quality is what it is. Despite the picture quality, Rhay’s expression makes it clear this was not his best day.
On Tuesday, May 23, 1978 Governor Dixy Lee Ray came to Walla Walla where she had a town hall meeting in the evening. In the afternoon she toured the Washington State Penitentiary. Her comments to the press after the tour were upbeat. Privately she was appalled. Despite a special housecleaning for her tour, Governor Ray thought conditions at the prison were slovenly and that the inmates had far too much freedom. It’s probably not a coincidence that Douglas Vinzant – who was simultaneously both penitentiary superintendent and state prisons director – announced the next day that he would name a successor as superintendent and move to Olympia to serve as the full-time director of the DSHS division of adult corrections.
According to the inmate who was the “con boss” in the book Concrete Mama, Vinzant and Genakos had a “busy hands are happy hands” policy. To that end they created opportunities in both traditional and innovative ways for inmates to keep busy. While some of their innovations involved questionable financial transactions and violation of the Washington Administrative Code, Vinzant also doubled enrollment in school and presided over the largest graduating class of inmates at the penitentiary to receive GEDs, high school diplomas, and two- and four-year college degrees.
In 1978, journalist John McCoy and photographer Ethan Hoffman quit their paying jobs at the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin to do an in-depth report on the biggest story in town: the Washington State Penitentiary. They spent four months talking with inmates, correctional officers, administrators, other prison staff, and visitors. They watched, listened, and Hoffman shot photos. Their resulting book, Concrete Mama, Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, is a snapshot in time of the Washington State Penitentiary at perhaps the lowest point in its more than 130 year history.
Excerpts and images from the book appeared in Life magazine in September 1979, and in several European publications a few weeks later. The book is sometimes available on Ebay, but expect to pay a pretty price for it.
At approximately seven o’clock in the evening on December 5, 1978, with a light dusting of snow on the ground, three inmates emerged from the end of a tunnel just outside the west wall of the Washington State Penitentiary. The prison administration knew that an escape was in the works, but they didn’t know exactly where or when. Extra armed officers had been posted on the west, south, and east side of the prison for about a week. On orders to halt, the first man dropped (or threw) a loaded .38 and put his hands in the air. According to official reports, the other two men ran. Seven shots were fired and both men were wounded with non-life threatening wounds.
A fourth man was seen popping out of the tunnel, but he retreated on the sound of gunfire. It was thought that as many as twelve more inmates were in the tunnel. They all scattered when the shots were fired.
In May 1979, three inmates took ten staff hostage in the Classification and Parole Building (see site plan). Inmates throughout the institution were ordered to return to their cells. Most did, but about 250 men congregated in People’s Park where they shouted encouragement to the hostage takers. Before the administration could address the hostage situation, it was necessary to move the inmates out of People’s Park and into the Big Yard. A newly trained Tactical Team confronted the inmates. When orders to move to the Big Yard were ignored, the Tac Team was authorized to use tear gas.
In the image below, the last of the inmates are being moved through the gate into the Big Yard where they spent the night under the stars. The hostage situation was resolved through negotiations and no one was hurt.
On June 15, 1979, Sergeant William Cross was murdered by inmates. The attack occurred in an extension of People’s Park, between the south entry to the dining hall and Big Red (see site plan). He was stabbed five times, one cutting his aorta. At the time, Sergeant Cross was the only officer in Washington State to be killed at the hands of inmates in living memory.
Cross’s death marked the beginning of the longest lockdown (nearly six months) in the history of Washington’s prisons.
The Washington State Penitentiary was locked down after the murder of Sergeant Cross. Superintendent Spalding had two primary goals for the lockdown. The first was to conduct a thorough search of the entire institution, confiscate contraband, and remove excess inmate property beyond a limited number of items that could fit in a foot locker under an inmate’s bed. The second was to make physical changes to the prison so that when the lockdown ended the world inside the walls would be a different place. Bulldozers were brought in. Lifers’ Park, People’s Park, and almost every grassy area inside the main compound were buried under a vast slab of concrete. In Spalding’s words, the architectural message he wanted to convey was, “this is a close custody institution, and we’re going to control it.”
On Saturday, July 7, 1979, the inmates in Eight Wing rioted. The institution had been in lockdown for 21 days following the murder of Sergeant William Cross. It all started when the inmates began chanting “Showers! Showers! Showers!” The chant then changed to “Kill, Kill, Kill,” with “Kill the pigs” and other phrases interspersed now and then. This was followed by a long chant of “Tear your shitter off the wall.” Soon most of the inmates were smashing their toilets and sinks. Water poured out of the cells and cascaded off the tiers to the floor below. Because the riot occurred on a Saturday evening, the officers called it “Saturday Night Live.”
Seventy-four of the 102 four-man cells in Eight Wing were destroyed that night. With nowhere else to put them, the inmates were herded into the Big Yard where they spent the next 42 days living in makeshift tents.
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.
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.