The inmate population at the penitentiary fell dramatically from 1965 until the summer of 1974 when it rapidly reversed course. For the last years of the 1970s, crowding exacerbated all of the problems the penitentiary was experiencing.
At the beginning of 1970, the system of control that had prevailed for decades at the Washington State Penitentiary was about to collapse. By 1972, that system was only a memory. In this video, three men – Superintendent B. J. Rhay, prison chaplain Jim Cummins, and an inmate – talk about what convicts and staff both called “super custody.”
As the system of prison control known as super custody collapsed at the Washington State Penitentiary, there was nothing to take its place. Frustrated and afraid, many correctional officers quit. Most of those who didn’t quit, simply looked the other way. As one inmate put it, “We were so much in control of the prison that a lot of guards didn’t have an opportunity to really do much with us…. When help was needed, that’s when they were called. I can’t even really remember them walkin’ around too much.”
In this video, Dick Morgan, an officer for less than four months is told to go to the third floor of the hospital where, it was said, too many inmates had hung themselves with their hands tied behind their backs.
Throughout most of the 1970s the inmates controlled most of the real estate inside the penitentiary walls. In this video, an inmate describes what it was like.
The Washington State Penitentiary was a dangerous place during the 1970s, and that danger affected the relationship between inmates. In the following story, an inmate who was president of the Black Prisoners Forum Unlimited (the B.P.F.U.) during the 1970s describes what it was like.
The prison auditorium was a dangerous place in the Washington State Penitentiary in the 1970s. In this audio tape, an inmate describes a near fatal assault when the lights went out.
On New Year’s eve day, 1974 inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary took hostages in one of the cell blocks and in the prison hospital. In this audio tape, associate superintendent for custody at the time of the incident, Jim Harvey, describes how the hostages were rescued.
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.
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.
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.
Black prisoners began trying to organize in 1969 but their efforts landed their leaders in the hole with orders to never meet again. It wasn’t until Superintendent B. J. Rhay started a program he called “Pride in Culture” in the fall of 1970 that black inmates could officially meet. Six months later, after the start of the RGC and Lifers’ Club in the spring of 1971, Rhay sanctioned creation of the Black United Front, which later became the B.P.F.U.
A protest and sit down strike by black prisoners in the summer of 1972 led to a lockdown and negotiated settlement which gave the B.P.F.U. their own club area (see site plan). They called it Walter Carter Hall after a popular black inmate who had died in the mental health program on the third floor of the hospital.
Most lifers in the Washington State Penitentiary in the 1970s lived in Eight Wing, next to Lifers’ Park where they held their banquets. Several hundred outside guests would come to a typical banquet. This somewhat out of focus picture is from one of them.
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.
In early fall, 1971, Lee Bowker, and several other professors at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, started what they called the Social Therapy Program at the penitentiary. The program was designed as a therapeutic community based on William Glasser’s hierarchy of needs. It was located on one tier in the Admissions Building (see site plan). The program continued until 1974 at the main institution, and for a while longer at the minimum security building. Apparently, quite a few needs were met. In fact, some of the college student volunteers became pregnant. The picture of the Social Therapy Program in action is from a 1972 article in LIFE magazine called “A New Way to Run the Big House.”
A furlough program created by the state legislature in 1971 allowed prison superintendents to approve furloughs of up to thirty days for inmates to live outside the prison. By February 1972, more than 2,000 furloughs had been approved across the state. A handful of inmates had failed to return, but there had been no major problems. Then, on a Saturday evening early in the month, state trooper Frank Noble made what started out as a routine traffic stop. An inmate from Walla Walla, out on his second furlough, was behind the wheel. When Noble approached the car the inmate pulled a gun and shot three times. Noble died at the scene and the inmate was arrested within the hour. Furlough requirements were tightened and the program continued.
The inmate store at the penitentiary carried a wide variety of products that could be purchased with scrip. Up until 1979, it was staffed by inmates.
A run on the store was always a bellwether for an impending incident that would cause a lockdown. Inmates would stock up on snacks, smokes, and other things so they wouldn’t have to do without during the lockdown. The store was ransacked and burned in what became known as the “Easter Riot” in April 1977.
Correctional officer Jim Hartford was assigned to the Walla Walla County Courthouse on Tuesday, April 5, 1977 during the trial of two inmates charged with assault. While on break, Hartford picked up a cigarette lighter from under the table in the law library next to the courtroom. When he tested it, it exploded. It had been packed with match heads, waiting for some unsuspecting person to pick it up to see if it worked. Hartford lost most of the fingers on his right hand that day.
Over the next four days there was documented retaliation by correctional officers in the segregation unit. On Sunday, April 10, 1977, inmates set fire to the chapel and ransacked the inmate store. Because it happened on Easter Sunday, it became known at the Easter Riot. The resulting lockdown lasted 46 days and resulted in dramatic changes at the penitentiary.
Hartford was in the hospital for 11 days and off work for three months. When he returned to work at the penitentiary, inmates would hold up their hand in grotesque contortion and catcall him “claw.” The picture below is from a newspaper article from the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.
On Easter Sunday 1977, five days after officer Jim Hartford had his hand blown apart by a booby-trapped cigarette lighter, inmates set fire to the chapel and ransacked the inmate store. The resulting 46-day lockdown was the longest and most consequential in the penitentiary’s history up to that time. Superintendent Rhay called a meeting with the inmate Resident Council where he told the inmates “I’m the one you have to deal with, baby.” It didn’t turn out that way. (Click on images to make them larger.)
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.
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.
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.
In 1978, journalist John McCoy and photographer Ethan Hoffman quit their paying jobs at the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin to do an in-depth report on the biggest story in town: the Washington State Penitentiary. They spent four months talking with inmates, correctional officers, administrators, other prison staff, and visitors. They watched, listened, and Hoffman shot photos. Their resulting book, Concrete Mama, Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, is a snapshot in time of the Washington State Penitentiary at perhaps the lowest point in its more than 130 year history.
Excerpts and images from the book appeared in Life magazine in September 1979, and in several European publications a few weeks later. The book is sometimes available on Ebay, but expect to pay a pretty price for it.
At approximately seven o’clock in the evening on December 5, 1978, with a light dusting of snow on the ground, three inmates emerged from the end of a tunnel just outside the west wall of the Washington State Penitentiary. The prison administration knew that an escape was in the works, but they didn’t know exactly where or when. Extra armed officers had been posted on the west, south, and east side of the prison for about a week. On orders to halt, the first man dropped (or threw) a loaded .38 and put his hands in the air. According to official reports, the other two men ran. Seven shots were fired and both men were wounded with non-life threatening wounds.
A fourth man was seen popping out of the tunnel, but he retreated on the sound of gunfire. It was thought that as many as twelve more inmates were in the tunnel. They all scattered when the shots were fired.
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.”
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.
The original concept – conceived in the fall of 1979 – was to divide the main compound of the prison into four more or less equal quadrants: two for housing, and two for inmate services and programs. A new movement control room and gate was constructed at the center of the main compound. The basic plan was substantially completed during Kastama’s relatively brief term as superintendent. The architectural scheme facilitated implementation of unit team management and a gate/pass system to control inmate movement, two things which greatly improved inmate and staff safety.
The Intensive Management Unit, or IMU, was the last major piece in the puzzle for regaining control of the penitentiary. Finally, segregation was moved out of the middle of the institution and inmates in seg were truly isolated from the rest of the prison population. The IMU was officially opened on June 27, 1984.
The design and operating procedures for the IMU were based on one simple principle: that no one – inmate or staff – ever gets hurt. For the most part, it’s worked that way.
This aerial photograph of the penitentiary was taken in 1985 by the aerial photography branch of the Washington State Department of Transportation. By this time, almost all of the many changes and improvement originally conceived in 1979 were finished: division of the main compound into four quadrants, demolition of old buildings and construction of new ones to create specialized functions for each quadrant, rearrangement of circulation patterns and movement controls, construction of day rooms and unit management offices for each cell block, construction of a medium security complex to the west of the main institution, conversion of the old women’s prison to a minimum security unit, and construction of the IMU.