I recently attended a gathering of retirees of the Washington State Penitentiary for a lunch and conversation. I noted how little these ex-employees knew about the history of that facility. I also thought of the great impact this institution has on the Walla Walla Valley and as a result I write some of my memories of what it was like in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
I started my association with the Washington State Penitentiary in early June of 1948, two days after getting my degree in psychology from Whitman College. My job title was sociologist/psychologist and my office was inside the walls for easy communication and availability to inmates. As I remember, my starting salary was $175 per month.
The superintendent (warden) was responsible to the governor. I use the title warden now and then for they were interchangeable in those days. The warden was “king of the hill” and sometimes called a czar for he had total power over inmates and employees and only answered to the political head of the state, the governor.
All institutions in the state operated on the “spoils system,” which meant as a new governor came into power, if you were not of his political party, you were out of a job. New people were hired based on political affiliation not on ability or training, which led to no continuity of programs or policy. I survived all those early years for I am about as neutral politically as you will find.
The common feeling of state judicial authorities was that many offenders would be healthier and in better physical condition after a period of incarceration. Prison officials felt the need for absolute control; thus, prisoners were marched in groups wherever they went. Prison administrators always felt it necessary to keep 100 percent of the inmates working or in educational programs. Staff felt a busy inmate was a happy inmate. Unfortunately, this rarely happened for there were just not enough classes and jobs to go around.
In most cases, the inmate was your friend and he just wanted to do his time and get out. Prisoners occupied most jobs that staff work at now. We had an inmate plumbers, cooks, electricians, painters, teachers, hospital nurses, power plant operators, carpenters and so on. The warden’s secretary was an inmate as were the clerical personnel. I can remember Superintendent Tom Smith went to a national meeting on the East Coast by car with an inmate driver.
About 95 percent of the inmates were docile and 5 percent caused all the trouble. The problem for staff was that they didn’t know who the 5 percent were. There was loyalty among inmates and an inmate could leave his radio (a most prized possession) out in the open and it would not be touched. This was the inmate code. On the main, the place was calm.
In those early years of my employment, there were no riots, but we did have some escapes and fights that had to be handled as well as tunnels to be filled in.
In 1948, they were still using a couple of cell blocks that had been part of the territorial prison built in 1887. They were made in Joliet, Illinois, with doors of strap iron and walls, floors and ceilings of solid steel. A couple of those cells are on display in the Penitentiary exhibit in the Fort Walla Walla Museum.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were no drug-based crimes. Larceny by check was the crime of choice. The inmates had a fairly defined social structure that was dictated by the type crime they committed. Usually the “lifer” was at the top of the hierarchy and the prisoners doing time for homosexuality and sexual crimes against children were at the very bottom. Prisoners ranked near the bottom were scorned and shunned by the main population. These individuals sometimes needed protective custody housing.
To the best of my memory, I think we had a total staff of under 500 and our inmate count was around 1900 which included some 30 women in a separate building outside the walls. I worked five and a half days a week as I started my career. The administration building had rooms on the third floor where single officers lived. The Superintendent Smith’s house was on the grounds and he had inmates as house staff.
Training for new employees was non-existent. An example is as follows. A newly hired guard reported to work at the assigned time and was informed his workstation was 8 tower. He asked where that was, and another guard said he would show him the way. His next question was, “What do I do?,” and the answer was, “If anyone tries to go over the wall, shoot ‘em.”
This was the total training he received. That new employee was Bob Rhay who started there while he was still going to Whitman. He later served as superintendent of the prison from 1957 to 1977.
There were all sorts of athletic activities with most of them involving teams from the community both inside the walls as well as in the community.
Each year, the inmates put on a well-rehearsed talent show, Cell-Abrasions, in the auditorium open to the public. Over the years, the epic was put on, at no time was there a problem with the inmates or the public coming in and leaving. The inmate count stayed the same. There was an inmate store open to the public that sold items produced by inmates such as leather work, paintings, silver work, etc. There are people today that collect these inmate craft items and pay high prices to do so.
At times there were inmate crews with officer supervision working outside the walls to help farmers in need or to dismantle houses in town for the lumber. The institution had farms outside the walls manned by inmates that furnish food for the kitchen but also shipped food to other state-run institutions. We had a large beef operation, chicken farm, hogs and a large prize-winning vegetable garden.
During those times, the cost per inmate meal was some 28 cents (1950 dollars). Inside the walls, there were businesses or industries that provided work for inmates and saved the state money. The only one surviving today is the license plate Factory/sign shop, but in my day, there was a cannery that provided food year around and a tailor shop and sock factory that provided clothing for Washington institutions. There was also a shoe shop that made and repaired shoes for institutions across the state. The education department held classes for inmates all the way from learning to read and write to offerings to gain a high school diploma.
The whole flavor of the penitentiary changed when we started to get felons with drug involvement in their crimes. Incoming prisoners, called “fish” were younger, more violent, drug-oriented, gang knowledgeable and prone to challenge authority. This was about the time cops were labeled “pigs.” Thus, began the understanding between the staff and inmates of “The keeper and the kept.” This ended the era of “honorable convicts” or men in prison that could be trusted to do their own time and respect others. The arrival of this new breed of inmate caused the end of participation at community activities, plus many recreational and work opportunities.
Employees received absolutely no benefits at all. No pension, health benefits or even job security. I recall an old officer who left after some 50 years of service and all he got was a key from the original 1887 prison and a handshake from the warden.
The chief engineer was given a retirement party after working behind the Walls for 40 years, and everyone shook his hand and said goodbye. He then walked out the front door and fell over dead. Civil Service for state employees was pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Albert Rosellini some years later.
In my opinion, today’s prison is well run and secure.
Bob Freeman retired in 1975 as Associate Superintendent and formed a consulting business that helped design prisons nationwide. He lives in Walla Walla and is now totally retired.