In “Unusual Punishment” author Christopher Murray of Olympia details the collapse of decades-old prison culture at Walla Walla and the rise of well-meaning but naive ideas that set in motion spiraling chaos. Over several decades, Murray interviewed people involved with the prison at all levels, from inmates and staff to superintendents and governors, combining their accounts with news stories from the era to tell the gripping inside story.
Under the warden system, the only rights inmates had were those granted by the warden. Transgressors were sent to solitary confinement to live naked and alone in the dark. The most dangerous prisoners were heavily sedated; by one account staff mixed “gallons” of Thorazine into their food. There was no informed consent.
Aiming for more humane treatment, reform leaned toward democracy and decriminalization. At Walla Walla, inmates were encouraged to form a Resident Government Council where their votes could determine rights and privileges. Over time they were allowed to form clubs and given keys to private areas of the maximum security prison while guards were denied access to the same areas. Mail was uncensored. There were banquets where prisoners and outsiders mingled. Personal clothing replaced prison garb and inmates rode prison-made motorcycles around the yard. Some inmates fixed up their cells with curtains, carpet and tile and rented them out to others.
As inmate control grew so did violence – stabbings, bombs, murders, riots, hostages and attempted escapes. There was massive staff turnover. At one point 42 officers refused to take their posts. Murray recounts the extraordinary measures it took to restore order.
“Unusual Punishment: Inside the Walla Walla Prison, 1970-1985”
by Christopher Murray
312 pages, Washington State University Press