This aerial photograph shows the configuration of the Washington State Penitentiary in 1970. The main compound (i.e. excluding Industries and the Big Yard) is about ten acres.
In this video, Dick Morgan, an officer for less than four months is told to go to the third floor of the hospital where, it was said, too many inmates had hung themselves with their hands tied behind their backs.
People’s Park was created in May 1971 shortly after Superintendent B. J. Rhay allowed the lifers to take over the grassy area between Seven and Eight Wings as dedicated outdoor space just for lifers. Not everyone thought this was a good idea. Note the misspelled “CONGRADULATIONS, GOVENOR” comment typed below Rhay’s memo to his associate superintendent for custody, Bill Macklin. The memo, with the added comment, was sent anonymously to Governor Dan Evans. Click here to see a picture of People’s Park.
Shortly after allowing the creation of Lifers’ Park at the penitentiary in April 1970, Superintendent Rhay authorized the Resident Government Council (RGC) to be in charge of what he called “a People’s Park area.” Formerly off-limits (inmates were required to keep to paved pathways), People’s Park was originally a grassy area next to Seven Wing, and south of the dining halls. It was later expanded when Rhay’s successor had the Lifers’ Construction Crew tear down the wall around what had been the outdoor exercise yard for men in segregation. The picture below is likely from 1978, after the wall around the segregation yard was demolished.
In the middle of People’s Park was a fish pond stocked with fish. There were also fire barrels in the park where inmates would warm their hands on a cold night, and sometimes fry a fish. As one inmate said, “It was like you’re on the streets, and you weren’t.”
The newly constructed pond is shown in the picture below. Water and fish came later.
This picture, from sometime around 1977, shows the old segregation yard in the middle of the prison. Big Red (segregation) is on the right, the dining halls are in the center, and the chapel and seven wing are on the left. The open space between seven wing and the seg yard is People’s Park.
The proximity of People’s Park to the seg yard made it easy for inmates in segregation to communicate with inmates in People’s Park or for contraband to be thrown over the wall. When Douglas Vinzant was superintendent, he gave the Lifer’s Construction Crew sledgehammers and had them tear down the seg yard. This eliminated one of the many avenues for introducing contraband into seg but it also effectively ended outdoor recreation for inmates in segregation. People’s Park became much bigger.
The Lifers were the first organization at the penitentiary to be given their own turf. A grassy area between Seven Wing and Eight Wing was first called “Lifer’s Acre.” It soon became known as Lifers’ Park. A former clothing room at the north end of the park became their club area. Inmates, and only the inmates, had keys to the gate into Lifers’ Park and to the door of their club area. Officers had to request that the gate or door be open. In the pictures below, Eight Wing is on the left; Seven Wing is on the right.
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.
This aerial photograph shows the location of the major inmate clubs and outdoor areas at the Washington State Penitentiary in 1978/1979. The Lifers held their banquets in Lifers’ Park; the Bikers and Confederated Indian Tribes held theirs in the Big Yard. The BPFU (Black Prisoners Forum Unlimited) held theirs in a grassy area to the west of their club. Blood Alley ran north/south next to Central Control, the BPFU, and Four/Five Wing. By 1978, the roof over Blood Alley had been removed.
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.”
The inmate store at the penitentiary carried a wide variety of products that could be purchased with scrip. Up until 1979, it was staffed by inmates.
A run on the store was always a bellwether for an impending incident that would cause a lockdown. Inmates would stock up on snacks, smokes, and other things so they wouldn’t have to do without during the lockdown. The store was ransacked and burned in what became known as the “Easter Riot” in April 1977.
The inmates called it “the hole.” Staff called it segregation, or seg for short. Segregation was located in the south end of a long building that everyone called Big Red (see site plan). Seg had four single story tiers, also called “decks.” A and B deck were on on the first floor, C and D on the second. A-Deck included blackout strip cells used for disciplinary isolation. The strip cells had no furnishings, light, running water, or heat – just concrete walls, floor, and ceiling. A hole in the floor was used as a toilet. They were called strip cells because a man was stripped of all clothing before being locked inside. A typical sentence – handed out at a disciplinary hearing – was 10 days isolation, 20 days seg.
Abolition of the strip cells was one of the reforms implemented by Conte in the fall of 1970. Despite the prohibition, they were used intermittently throughout the ’70s.
The picture below is the entry to A-Deck.
The segregation unit at the Washington State Penitentiary occupied the south end of a long brick building known as Big Red. Since Big Red was in the middle of the institution and next to People’s Park (see site plan), communication between inmates in seg and inmates in the general population was easy: words could be shouted through open or broken windows, and some inmates could visit them in their segregation cells. Before the seg yard was torn down in 1978, notes, drugs, and weapons could be tossed over the seg yard wall by inmates standing in, or passing through, People’s Park. Because of it’s location, and the way it was run, segregation didn’t segregate.
To demonstrate their displeasure, inmates in seg would often thrown trash, food, and human waste onto the tier. The unfortunate officers assigned to work the unit were issued full face masks, rain slickers, and dairy boots, to prevent them from being hit by excrement or urine. If the garbage and waste were left long enough, maggots would multiply and the filth on the floor would start to move. The first picture below is from a “strike” by the segregation inmates in 1979. The second shows an officer delivering meals while wearing a rubber suit and face mask.
The site of numerous assaults, robberies, stabbings, and murders, Blood Alley earned its name. No part of this covered breezeway was visible from the wall or any tower. Inside was little better. A hump in the middle limited visibility from either end. Furthermore, a group of inmates could easily block observation of nefarious activity.
In the picture below, the hospital and pill line are on the right; Central Control, the BPFU, and Four/Five Wing are on the left. The auditorium, also a dangerous place in the 1970s, is in the distance.
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.
The original concept – conceived in the fall of 1979 – was to divide the main compound of the prison into four more or less equal quadrants: two for housing, and two for inmate services and programs. A new movement control room and gate was constructed at the center of the main compound. The basic plan was substantially completed during Kastama’s relatively brief term as superintendent. The architectural scheme facilitated implementation of unit team management and a gate/pass system to control inmate movement, two things which greatly improved inmate and staff safety.
The Intensive Management Unit, or IMU, was the last major piece in the puzzle for regaining control of the penitentiary. Finally, segregation was moved out of the middle of the institution and inmates in seg were truly isolated from the rest of the prison population. The IMU was officially opened on June 27, 1984.
The design and operating procedures for the IMU were based on one simple principle: that no one – inmate or staff – ever gets hurt. For the most part, it’s worked that way.
This aerial photograph of the penitentiary was taken in 1985 by the aerial photography branch of the Washington State Department of Transportation. By this time, almost all of the many changes and improvement originally conceived in 1979 were finished: division of the main compound into four quadrants, demolition of old buildings and construction of new ones to create specialized functions for each quadrant, rearrangement of circulation patterns and movement controls, construction of day rooms and unit management offices for each cell block, construction of a medium security complex to the west of the main institution, conversion of the old women’s prison to a minimum security unit, and construction of the IMU.