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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Starting in the summer of 1971, B. J. Rhay permitted various inmate organizations to hold banquets to which outside guests were invited. This tradition was continued and expanded both by Rhay and his successor, Douglas Vinzant. One group to hold annual banquets was the Washington State Penitentiary Motorcycle Association, better known as the Bikers.
The Bikers took over most of an old abandoned power house in the middle of the institution (see site plan). This is where they had their club area, reconditioned motorcycles, made shanks, smoked dope, and ran their heroin trade enforcement activities. Like the other major inmate clubs, the Bikers had the only keys to their building.
The Bike Shop had barrels of gasoline, acetylene torches, vices, bench grinders, and every other tool needed to work on motorcycles. One wall inside the Bike Club was decorated with an enormous swastika.
At first the Bikers tested their choppers in the northwest corner of the main institution, just to the west of their club. Later they were permitted to ride their bikes in the Big Yard where they also held their annual banquet.
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.
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.
The site of numerous assaults, robberies, stabbings, and murders, Blood Alley earned its name. No part of this covered breezeway was visible from the wall or any tower. Inside was little better. A hump in the middle limited visibility from either end. Furthermore, a group of inmates could easily block observation of nefarious activity.
In the picture below, the hospital and pill line are on the right; Central Control, the BPFU, and Four/Five Wing are on the left. The auditorium, also a dangerous place in the 1970s, is in the distance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Saturday, July 7, 1979, the inmates in Eight Wing rioted. The institution had been in lockdown for 21 days following the murder of Sergeant William Cross. It all started when the inmates began chanting “Showers! Showers! Showers!” The chant then changed to “Kill, Kill, Kill,” with “Kill the pigs” and other phrases interspersed now and then. This was followed by a long chant of “Tear your shitter off the wall.” Soon most of the inmates were smashing their toilets and sinks. Water poured out of the cells and cascaded off the tiers to the floor below. Because the riot occurred on a Saturday evening, the officers called it “Saturday Night Live.”
Seventy-four of the 102 four-man cells in Eight Wing were destroyed that night. With nowhere else to put them, the inmates were herded into the Big Yard where they spent the next 42 days living in makeshift tents.
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.
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.
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.
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.