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.WSP D tier seg 1979

Rubber suit in seg


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

Sergeant William Cross


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.

The Intensive Management Unit

The Intensive Management Unit at the Washington State Penitentiary – 1984