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.
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.
Entrance to A-deck in segregation
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.