The story of the Washington State Penitentiary from 1970 to 1985—despite its many unique qualities—can be seen as a microcosm for the upheaval in prisons that was occurring all across the country, more or less at the same time. Sometimes starting a little earlier, sometimes a little later, virtually all prison systems in the United States saw a gradual (or precipitous) erosion of autonomy and power of wardens of major prisons replaced by centralized, standards-based, rule-driven, paramilitary organizations. Convicts became “inmates.” Guards became “correctional officers.” The phrase “inmates are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment,” became popular in certain circles. The American Correctional Association published its first edition of Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions. Staff training became more rigorous.
Over time, formerly powerless inmates gained at least some checks against arbitrary retribution for both major and trivial transgressions. The exercise of political patronage and nepotism in the hiring and promotion of staff became less common. Death, maiming, and disability from medical malpractice, or what the courts called “deliberate indifference,” diminished and eventually became rare.
While changes such as these tended to make incarceration somewhat more humane, there were other forces at work. The “war on drugs,” declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, gained momentum as state after state enacted laws mandating long sentences for possession or sale of relatively small quantities of drugs. Ostensibly intended for major drug kingpins, these and similar laws accelerated the long-term trend toward mass incarceration whose effects continue to this day.
A classic paper by sociologist Robert Martinson published in 1974 (popularly known as “nothing works”) effectively ended efforts towards adult prisoner rehabilitation in the United States for at least the next fifteen years. The classic list of the goals of incarceration—retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation—became shorter. The “just deserts” model became the driving force in adult corrections. Mandatory minimum sentences proliferated and prison sentences, on average, became longer. Like increased admissions, longer sentences drove prison populations ever higher.
The war on drugs, changes in sentencing, and other changes that increased prison admissions and length of stay—as important as they were in shaping the landscape of American prisons today—are not the focus of this book. What Unusual Punishment does address is the story of the messy opening of what had long been a closed prison culture and the transformation of that culture into something quite different. In Washington State, and in much of the country, a nearly perfect storm of forces drove this sea change. An onslaught of major legal challenges, riots, new attitudes in the prisoner population, proliferating drug use, and strong public sector unions combined to put the old order on the defensive, and ultimately to overwhelm it.
Altogether, these convergent forces overwhelmed the prevailing method of how prisons were managed. After years of searching, often resisting, sometimes floundering, a new order emerged. In many jurisdictions, the difference between the old order and the new was like night and day; in others, the difference was more a matter of degree. But everywhere, the unfettered discretion exercised by powerful wardens over inmates and staff alike was broken. The path taken by the Washington State Penitentiary was unique in its details, but not in its overall trajectory.