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.
Sketch of escape route
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.