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.

Memo authorizing creation of People's Park from B. J. Rhay to his associate superintendent


Shortly after allowing the creation of Lifers’ Park at the penitentiary in April 1970, Superintendent Rhay authorized the Resident Government Council (RGC) to be in charge of what he called “a People’s Park area.” Formerly off-limits (inmates were required to keep to paved pathways), People’s Park was originally a grassy area next to Seven Wing, and south of the dining halls. It was later expanded when Rhay’s successor had the Lifers’ Construction Crew tear down the wall around what had been the outdoor exercise yard for men in segregation. The picture below is likely from 1978, after the wall around the segregation yard was demolished.

Peoples Park - 1978


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.

Inmates stocked a small pond in People's Park with fish


This picture, from sometime around 1977, shows the old segregation yard in the middle of the prison. Big Red (segregation) is on the right, the dining halls are in the center, and the chapel and seven wing are on the left. The open space between seven wing and the seg yard is People’s Park.

The proximity of People’s Park to the seg yard made it easy for inmates in segregation to communicate with inmates in People’s Park or for contraband to be thrown over the wall. When Douglas Vinzant was superintendent, he gave the Lifer’s Construction Crew sledgehammers and had them tear down the seg yard. This eliminated one of the many avenues for introducing contraband into seg but it also effectively ended outdoor recreation for inmates in segregation. People’s Park became much bigger.

WSP Seg Yard c. 1977


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.

Site plan of the Washington State Penitentiary in 1978 showing location of clubs and other inmate areas


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


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.

The SWAT Team prepares to gas the inmates

The Tactical Team prepares to gas the inmates

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.

The Tactical Team using tear gas to move inmates into the Big Yard

Tear gas moved the last of the inmates into the Big Yard




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


Clearing People's Park in front of the chapel

Clearing People’s Park in front of the chapel

The Washington State Penitentiary was locked down after the murder of Sergeant Cross. Superintendent Spalding had two primary goals for the lockdown. The first was to conduct a thorough search of the entire institution, confiscate contraband, and remove excess inmate property beyond a limited number of items that could fit in a foot locker under an inmate’s bed. The second was to make physical changes to the prison so that when the lockdown ended the world inside the walls would be a different place. Bulldozers were brought in. Lifers’ Park, People’s Park, and almost every grassy area inside the main compound were buried under a vast slab of concrete. In Spalding’s words, the architectural message he wanted to convey was, “this is a close custody institution, and we’re going to control it.”

Paving Peoples Park 2