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.
Douglas Vinzant (seated) and B. J. Rhay
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.
According to the inmate who was the “con boss” in the book Concrete Mama, Vinzant and Genakos had a “busy hands are happy hands” policy. To that end they created opportunities in both traditional and innovative ways for inmates to keep busy. While some of their innovations involved questionable financial transactions and violation of the Washington Administrative Code, Vinzant also doubled enrollment in school and presided over the largest graduating class of inmates at the penitentiary to receive GEDs, high school diplomas, and two- and four-year college degrees.
Superintendent Douglas Vinzant addresses the new graduates
Graduating inmates and their guests in the outdoor visiting yard