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.
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 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.
In late June 1977, after twenty years as superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary, B. J. Rhay was replaced by Douglas Vinzant. Rhay was transferred to Olympia to lead an initiative called the “mini-prison” project. A few days after Rhay arrived in the state capital, the governor vetoed the appropriation for the mini-prisons. Rhay collected a few paychecks then accepted a job as commissioner of corrections in Montana.
The accompanying picture is from a scan of a print of a microfilm of a newspaper – which is why the image quality is what it is. Despite the picture quality, Rhay’s expression makes it clear this was not his best day.
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.
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.