Daniel J. Evans
Daniel J. Evans (a.k.a. “Straight Arrow”) was governor of the state of Washington for three consecutive terms, beginning in 1965. From the start of his first term he was dedicated to institutional reform, including prisons. Without knowing how, he was certain that the state could improve outcomes for the people sent to prison. As prison populations fell, he was a champion of what became know as “mini-prisons,” and of tearing down “these massive old warehouses.”
Evans’s second Director of the Department of Institutions, psychiatrist William R. Conte, was also a champion of prison reform. In 1970 Conte secured private funding to sent B. J. Rhay to Europe to study prison practices there. Rhay returned with reports of small, progressive prisons with significantly enhanced prisoner rights. Before the end of the year, some of the ideas Rhay brought back were incorporated in what became known as the four reforms: ending the use of strip cells (unfurnished blackout cells where a man could be held naked for days, even weeks), end of mail censorship, introduction of telephones for prisoner use, and creation of what became known as “resident government.”
William R. Conte, MD
B. J. Rhay
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.
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
Cover image for a B.P.F.U. pamphlet
Black prisoners began trying to organize in 1969 but their efforts landed their leaders in the hole with orders to never meet again. It wasn’t until Superintendent B. J. Rhay started a program he called “Pride in Culture” in the fall of 1970 that black inmates could officially meet. Six months later, after the start of the RGC and Lifers’ Club in the spring of 1971, Rhay sanctioned creation of the Black United Front, which later became the B.P.F.U.
A protest and sit down strike by black prisoners in the summer of 1972 led to a lockdown and negotiated settlement which gave the B.P.F.U. their own club area (see site plan). They called it Walter Carter Hall after a popular black inmate who had died in the mental health program on the third floor of the hospital.
Inside Walter Carter Hall
Site of B.P.F.U. banquets. Walter Carter Hall is on the left, the old gym is on the right, and the back of education is between the two.
In early fall, 1971, Lee Bowker, and several other professors at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, started what they called the Social Therapy Program at the penitentiary. The program was designed as a therapeutic community based on William Glasser’s hierarchy of needs. It was located on one tier in the Admissions Building (see site plan). The program continued until 1974 at the main institution, and for a while longer at the minimum security building. Apparently, quite a few needs were met. In fact, some of the college student volunteers became pregnant. The picture of the Social Therapy Program in action is from a 1972 article in LIFE magazine called “A New Way to Run the Big House.”
Inmates and visitors socialize on the tier
Students from nearby colleges would spend the day at the prison
Trooper Frank Noble, Washington State Patrol
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.
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.
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.
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.
Doug Vinzant to the Governor’s right. Behind Vinzant (with the bold tie) is state senator Hubert Donohue. Newly appointed Associate Superintendent Larry Kincheloe is in the right foreground.
Superintendent Douglas Vinzant escorting Governor Ray past the Vocational School. Walla Walla Union-Bulletin photographer Ethan Hoffman in the foreground on the right.
Senator Donohue behind Governor Ray’s right shoulder. Jim Thatcher on the right behind Vinzant. The taller man in the back between Governor Ray and Vinzant is then acting Secretary of DSHS, Jerry Thomas.
Governor Ray in the Washington State Penitentiary Motorcycle Association (AKA “the Bikers”) clubhouse. Governor Ray’s sister to her right. Photographer Ethan Hoffman (kneeling) in the foreground shooting a picture.
Vinzant making a point with Senator Donohue while the governor looks on. Newly elected union president, Parley Edwards, behind Senator Donohue.
Nicholas Genakos, or “Nick the Greek” as the correctional officers called him, has the distinction of being the shortest serving superintendent of WSP in its more than 100 year history. He was superintendent for all of six weeks.
Prior to taking over from Douglas Vinzant as superintendent in July 1978, Genakos had been Vinzant’s associate superintendent for custody. The two men knew each other from their days in Massachusetts, when Vinzant was warden of Walpole prison and Genakos was his deputy. After a bomb exploded in the penitentiary’s central control room in August 1978, Vinzant was fired as Director of Prisons and Genakos was asked to resign as WSP superintendent.
James (Jim) Spalding was born in Montana, the eldest son of the Captain of the Guards at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. As a young man he came to Washington State, hoping to become a state trooper. When he discovered there was a one year residency requirement to apply for the job, he went to work at the penitentiary as a correctional officer.
Spalding quickly rose through the ranks. Every time he took a civil service exam for promotion – for sergeant, lieutenant, and captain – he was ranked number one on the state register. Spalding left the penitentiary in 1974 to become an associate superintendent at the Monroe Reformatory, the other old prison in Washington.
In August, 1978, a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday, Spalding was named superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary. He inherited a broken and dysfunctional prison. Not only were the inmates out of control, so too were many of the correctional officers. Many officers did little or nothing; some ran in rat packs, harassing inmates, trashing their cells, and beating them.
Spalding was penitentiary superintendent until July 1981 when he became Deputy Director of the Division of Prisons for the newly created Washington State Department of Corrections. His years as superintendent coincided with some of the most difficult times at the penitentiary.
Jim Spalding died in September 2014.
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.
Sergeant William Cross
Clarence Robert Melvin Kastama was born and raised on a farm in Northern Minnesota by bilingual parents of Finnish decent. While successful farmers – at one time farming 1,200 acres – neither parent had more than a sixth grade education. Their son, who for perhaps obvious reasons shortened his name to Bob, would ultimately earn a Ph.D.
Bob Kastama followed Jim Spalding as penitentiary superintendent on July 1, 1981 – the first day of the newly created Washington State Department of Corrections. While Kastama’s tenure as superintendent lasted only ten months, there were significant accomplishments during that brief period. Work was completed on what was known as “the quadrant system,” which broke the walled institution into four parts separated by state-of-the-art movement controls. A gate/pass system was implemented. The last remnants of the Biker’s club – their bikes – were removed. Unit team management was implemented.
Bob Kastama, a participatory management sort of guy, was not a good fit for the top-down, quasi-military, management style of his superiors, Walter (Kip) Kautzky, and Amos Reed. He also had what he called “a rigid set of ethics.” Speaking his mind, and asserting his independence, got Kastama into hot water more than once. In May 1978, Kastama elected to resign rather than be fired.
Larry Kincheloe was a military man. After nearly 15 years in the army, and three tours of infantry duty in Vietnam, Kincheloe moved to Washington State as an adviser to the Army National Guard. In his spare time he enrolled in a master degree program at Pacific Lutheran University where his studies kindled an interest in corrections. By coincidence, Kincheloe lived across the street from the house Douglas Vinzant used when he was in Olympia in his roll as Director of the Division of Adult Corrections. After discussing ideas with Vinzant about his master’s thesis, Vinzant offered Kincheloe a job at the penitentiary as an associate superintendent.
A few months later, when Vinzant was fired and Genakos resigned, Kincheloe thought his days were numbered. While he had almost no experience in corrections, Jim Spalding kept Kincheloe as his associate superintendent for custody. Spalding saw that Kincheloe got along well with staff, an important asset, especially given staff attitudes and morale at the time. He also believed that Kincheloe possessed the qualities to be an effective member of his management team.
By 1982, Kincheloe was no longer a novice at prison management, and Kip Kautzky, also a military man, appointed him to replace Kastama. He remained penitentiary superintendent until January 1988, when he moved into central office. During Kincheloe’s tenure as superintendent, the long-range plan for upgrading the penitentiary that was developed during the early days of Spalding’s superintendency, was finally completed. Numerous operational changes, including much improved staff training and supervision, occurred during Kincheloe’s watch. By the time he left, a new kind of order was in place at the Washington State Penitentiary.