A History of the Washington State Penitentiary

Flat Iron Cells at Washington State PenitentiaryIn 1883, the Territorial Governor authorized the selection of a suitable site for a penitentiary. In 1885, Walla Walla was chosen.

Construction began in 1886 using bricks manufactured in nearby Dixie from the fine clay beds there. These were the first machine-made bricks used in this country and weighed a pound heavier than the handmade bricks. The rock wall, which stands today, was built of stone brought from the Columbia River area. Some of the stones laid in the foundation weigh six tons and contain 104 cubic feet of concrete.

William Murphy, convicted in 1878 of manslaughter, had the historic distinction of being the first inmate registered at the prison. The first female prisoner arrived in 1887 - a housewife convicted of Grand Larceny. Female prisoners were relocated in 1971 to Purdy, now the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

Early cells were made of iron, with strap iron grill doors. Lighting was by candles until 1902 when electric lights were installed for cell illumination. To provide needed jobs for the prisoners, a one-story jute mill for the manufacture of sacks was built in 1892. In 1921, the jute mill was transformed into a license plate factory, which continues to operate today producing 2.1 million plates annually.

Early rules stated prisoners were to observe strict silence during meals, and staring at visitors or gazing about the dining room was strictly forbidden. Rules weren't just for the prisoners either. The Captain of the Guards was to make unscheduled visits at night to personally ascertain that the prisoners were all secure. Officers were to refrain from whistling, scuffing, immoderate laughter, and other ungentlemanly conduct while on the penitentiary grounds.

The first escape was made by two inmates who jumped over the walls on Independence Day in 1887. Following the escape, it was announced that the prison walls would henceforth be guarded. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1986, a more unusual escape was attempted when an inmate was discovered sealed inside a cardboard box measuring approximately 14"X19"X32". The box was supposed to have contained books. In his cell the inmate had left an amazingly lifelike dummy sporting a wig made from the inmate's own hair.

In the 1940s, the public purchased tickets to attend concert and talent shows known as 'Cell-Abrasions' given by the inmates. Other programs in the late 1960s included 'Take a Lifer to Dinner' in which professionals gave inmates sentenced to life an opportunity to experience a day's outing in the local community.

Parents and their children also came to the penitentiary to attend boxing matches (smokers) and Little League exhibition games held within the prison walls. Inmates stayed tuned to the outside world through radio and television. Radio made its advent at the prison on December 24, 1934. For cell block reception, a loud speaker system was installed using an 11-tube set to bring in the stations and a 12-tube bridging amplifier for delivery to the inmate living units. Today, the 41 channel television is paid for by the inmates.