At the beginning of 1970, the system of control that had prevailed for decades at the Washington State Penitentiary was about to collapse. By 1972, that system was only a memory. In this video, three men – Superintendent B. J. Rhay, prison chaplain Jim Cummins, and an inmate – talk about what convicts and staff both called “super custody.”
As the system of prison control known as super custody collapsed at the Washington State Penitentiary, there was nothing to take its place. Frustrated and afraid, many correctional officers quit. Most of those who didn’t quit, simply looked the other way. As one inmate put it, “We were so much in control of the prison that a lot of guards didn’t have an opportunity to really do much with us…. When help was needed, that’s when they were called. I can’t even really remember them walkin’ around too much.”
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.