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.
Daniel J. Evans (a.k.a. “Straight Arrow”) was governor of the state of Washington for three consecutive terms, beginning in 1965. From the start of his first term he was dedicated to institutional reform, including prisons. Without knowing how, he was certain that the state could improve outcomes for the people sent to prison. As prison populations fell, he was a champion of what became know as “mini-prisons,” and of tearing down “these massive old warehouses.”
Evans’s second Director of the Department of Institutions, psychiatrist William R. Conte, was also a champion of prison reform. In 1970 Conte secured private funding to sent B. J. Rhay to Europe to study prison practices there. Rhay returned with reports of small, progressive prisons with significantly enhanced prisoner rights. Before the end of the year, some of the ideas Rhay brought back were incorporated in what became known as the four reforms: ending the use of strip cells (unfurnished blackout cells where a man could be held naked for days, even weeks), end of mail censorship, introduction of telephones for prisoner use, and creation of what became known as “resident government.”
Variously known as Bob, Bobby. B. J., warden, superintendent, and Mr. Rhay, B. J. Rhay has the distinction of being the longest serving superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary in the prison’s history.
A decorated fighter pilot from World War II, Rhay returned to Walla Walla in 1945 where he got a degree in sociology from Whitman College and married the prison superintendent’s daughter. When his father-in-law joined the ranks of the unemployed due to a change in the governor’s mansion, Rhay went to work for Earle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame) on Gardner’s 1950s radio and TV show, “Court of Last Resort.”
Rhay was appointed superintendent in 1957 at the age of 35, making him the youngest prison superintendent in the country. Twenty years later, at the end of his tenure, he had been superintendent of the same maximum security prison longer than anyone else.
Rhay was the father of seven daughters, all raised in the superintendent’s residence in the shadow of the prison walls.
B. J. Rhay died in June, 2012, at the age of 91.
The Resident Government Council, or RGC, was established at the Washington State Penitentiary in April 1971. Its creation implemented one of the reforms announced the previous November by Director of the Department of Institutions William R. Conte. While the first year of the RGC was a qualified success, it quickly went downhill after that, its power and influence eclipsed by the major inmate clubs – the Lifers, Bikers, and BPFU.
The picture below, taken from a 1972 television broadcast by KING TV, shows members of the council in discussion. The first president of the RGC was Johnnie Harris, seen sitting at the head of the table.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Starting in the summer of 1971, B. J. Rhay permitted various inmate organizations to hold banquets to which outside guests were invited. This tradition was continued and expanded both by Rhay and his successor, Douglas Vinzant. One group to hold annual banquets was the Washington State Penitentiary Motorcycle Association, better known as the Bikers.
The Bikers took over most of an old abandoned power house in the middle of the institution (see site plan). This is where they had their club area, reconditioned motorcycles, made shanks, smoked dope, and ran their heroin trade enforcement activities. Like the other major inmate clubs, the Bikers had the only keys to their building.
The Bike Shop had barrels of gasoline, acetylene torches, vices, bench grinders, and every other tool needed to work on motorcycles. One wall inside the Bike Club was decorated with an enormous swastika.
At first the Bikers tested their choppers in the northwest corner of the main institution, just to the west of their club. Later they were permitted to ride their bikes in the Big Yard where they also held their annual banquet.
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 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.
When he became superintendent in 1977, Douglas Vinzant was the first new superintendent the penitentiary had know in twenty years. A Methodist minister from Mississippi, Vinzant was brilliant, well-read, witty, and (when he wanted to be) charming. Vinzant came to Washington State in 1974 after short terms as warden at Concord and Walpole prisons in Massachusetts. Before his appointment as penitentiary superintendent, Vinzant was director of the state’s Bureau of Juvenile Rehabilitation.
Vinzant remained in Walla Walla for twelve months, during which time he also served as director of the Division of Prisons. While he wore two hats for much of his tenure in Washington adult corrections, Vinzant clearly enjoyed being superintendent more than being director. In his words, “When I was superintendent and I spent a dollar’s worth of energy, I probably got fifty, sixty cents’ worth of work done. When I spent a dollar’s worth of energy as a director, I might have got a dime’s worth of work done. At the institutional level, you’re really dealing with the problems of corrections. When you’re at the director level, you’re simply babysitting politicians and the agenda of the governor rather than the agenda of corrections.”
His tenure in both jobs was marked by controversy and ended in chaos, blood, and acrimony.
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.
In May 1979, three inmates took ten staff hostage in the Classification and Parole Building (see site plan). Inmates throughout the institution were ordered to return to their cells. Most did, but about 250 men congregated in People’s Park where they shouted encouragement to the hostage takers. Before the administration could address the hostage situation, it was necessary to move the inmates out of People’s Park and into the Big Yard. A newly trained Tactical Team confronted the inmates. When orders to move to the Big Yard were ignored, the Tac Team was authorized to use tear gas.
In the image below, the last of the inmates are being moved through the gate into the Big Yard where they spent the night under the stars. The hostage situation was resolved through negotiations and no one was hurt.
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.
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.
The last inmates from the Eight Wing riot were moved to the Big Yard as the sun was coming up Sunday morning, July 8, 1979. The inmates were told to sit in rows and remain silent. When one man stood, an officer fired a single shot in the air and yelled, “Sit Down!” The inmate sat and no one moved for another 40 minutes. When someone else got up and nothing happened, the rest of the inmates began to slowly mill about.
Inmates who had not destroyed their cell were identified and moved to other cell blocks in the penitentiary. The remainder – about 250 inmates – spent the next 42 days living in makeshift tents under the hot Walla Walla sun, eating TV dinners, and using porta-potties and makeshift outdoor showers.
Clarence Robert Melvin Kastama was born and raised on a farm in Northern Minnesota by bilingual parents of Finnish decent. While successful farmers – at one time farming 1,200 acres – neither parent had more than a sixth grade education. Their son, who for perhaps obvious reasons shortened his name to Bob, would ultimately earn a Ph.D.
Bob Kastama followed Jim Spalding as penitentiary superintendent on July 1, 1981 – the first day of the newly created Washington State Department of Corrections. While Kastama’s tenure as superintendent lasted only ten months, there were significant accomplishments during that brief period. Work was completed on what was known as “the quadrant system,” which broke the walled institution into four parts separated by state-of-the-art movement controls. A gate/pass system was implemented. The last remnants of the Biker’s club – their bikes – were removed. Unit team management was implemented.
Bob Kastama, a participatory management sort of guy, was not a good fit for the top-down, quasi-military, management style of his superiors, Walter (Kip) Kautzky, and Amos Reed. He also had what he called “a rigid set of ethics.” Speaking his mind, and asserting his independence, got Kastama into hot water more than once. In May 1978, Kastama elected to resign rather than be fired.
Larry Kincheloe was a military man. After nearly 15 years in the army, and three tours of infantry duty in Vietnam, Kincheloe moved to Washington State as an adviser to the Army National Guard. In his spare time he enrolled in a master degree program at Pacific Lutheran University where his studies kindled an interest in corrections. By coincidence, Kincheloe lived across the street from the house Douglas Vinzant used when he was in Olympia in his roll as Director of the Division of Adult Corrections. After discussing ideas with Vinzant about his master’s thesis, Vinzant offered Kincheloe a job at the penitentiary as an associate superintendent.
A few months later, when Vinzant was fired and Genakos resigned, Kincheloe thought his days were numbered. While he had almost no experience in corrections, Jim Spalding kept Kincheloe as his associate superintendent for custody. Spalding saw that Kincheloe got along well with staff, an important asset, especially given staff attitudes and morale at the time. He also believed that Kincheloe possessed the qualities to be an effective member of his management team.
By 1982, Kincheloe was no longer a novice at prison management, and Kip Kautzky, also a military man, appointed him to replace Kastama. He remained penitentiary superintendent until January 1988, when he moved into central office. During Kincheloe’s tenure as superintendent, the long-range plan for upgrading the penitentiary that was developed during the early days of Spalding’s superintendency, was finally completed. Numerous operational changes, including much improved staff training and supervision, occurred during Kincheloe’s watch. By the time he left, a new kind of order was in place at the Washington State Penitentiary.