Washington State Penitentiary

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Washington State Penitentiary (WSP)
Washington State Penitentiary is located in Washington (state)
Washington State Penitentiary
Location in Washington
LocationWalla Walla
Coordinates46°4′41″N 118°21′32″W / 46.07806°N 118.35889°W / 46.07806; -118.35889Coordinates: 46°4′41″N 118°21′32″W / 46.07806°N 118.35889°W / 46.07806; -118.35889
Security classMinimum, Medium, Close, Maximum
Managed byWashington State Department of Corrections
WardenDonald Holbrook, Superintendent
Street address1313 North 13th Ave.
CityWalla Walla
CountyWalla Walla County
ZIP Code99362
CountryUnited States

Washington State Penitentiary (also called the Walla Walla State Penitentiary) is a Washington State Department of Corrections men's prison located in Walla Walla, Washington. With an operating capacity of 2,200, it is the second largest prison in the state (after Coyote Ridge Corrections Center) and is surrounded by wheat fields. It opened in 1886, three years before statehood.

It was the site of Washington State's death row and where executions were carried out, until the Washington Supreme Court ruled the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional on October 11, 2018, thereby abolishing capital punishment in the state. Methods for execution were lethal injection and hanging.

Located at 1313 N. 13th Avenue, it is commonly known as "the Walls" among inmates and "The Pen" to the locals. The penitentiary is sometimes known as "Concrete Mama", from a book with the same title by Ethan Hoffman and John McCoy. Elsewhere within Washington, and also to an extent in the surrounding states, the name Walla Walla is a metonym for the penitentiary. The penitentiary was the subject of the song "Walla Walla" by American punk rock band The Offspring.


Washington State Penitentiary is the oldest operational prison in Washington state and among the oldest operational prisons in the US.[1]

During the 1880s, Washington's territorial legislature sought to build a state prison to satisfy a requirement for eventual statehood.[2] The territory's prison at the time, the privately-owned Seatco Prison, had "poor living conditions" and was nicknamed "The Seatco Dungeon" and "Hell on Earth". Its inmates performed penal labor and manufactured goods while being denied visitation rights and access to clergy.[2][3] Walla Walla's city government began lobbying for a territory-funded institution, and after Levi Ankeny, a local wealthy business man, donated 160-acres for the site in 1886, the legislators approved the Washington Territorial Prison.[2][4] On May 11, 1887, the first 10 prisoners arrived from Seatco.[5][2]

Guards were placed on the facility's walls after two prisoners escaped shortly after it was opened, on July 4, 1887. They only made it a few miles before being recaptured.[5] There have been several more escapes since, including a seized supply train in 1891, a riot that left nine dead in 1934,[6] 10 who tunneled under the wall in 1955,[7] and John Allen Lamb, who sawed his way out in 1997.[8]

In 1887, the facility had its first incarcerated woman, a housewife who had committed grand larceny, but there were no accommodations suitable for a woman.[2] The prison later converted the hospital quarters to accommodate four women, and later built a separate facility.[9] The remaining Seatco inmates were transferred in 1888, and the facility was shut down, and the town changed its name to "Bucoda". When Washington became a state in 1889, the facility officially became the Washington State Penitentiary, but inmates nicknamed it "The Hill", "The Joint", "The Walls", and "The Pen".[2] The first execution was carried out in 1906,[10] and the final in 2010 of Cal Coburn Brown.[11] Capital punishment in Washington became illegal in 2018.[12] The most notable inmate at Walla Walla is Gary Ridgway, a serial killer known as the "Green River killer," who pleaded guilty in 2003 to the murders of 48 women to avoid the death penalty.[13] He was still incarcerated there as of November 2021.[14]

Over a one-year period, starting in March 2002, more than one hundred inmates and staff at the Washington State Penitentiary were infected with Campylobacter jejuni. During this period, five clusters of the infection were identified, and genetic testing indicated that all of the bacteria were indistinguishable from each other. The source of this outbreak is not known, but contamination via pigeon feces, as well as unsafe food handling procedures, were examined.[15][16][clarification needed]

In June 2021, dozens of inmates were subjected to extreme heat when the air conditioning stopped working in the solitary confinement unit. Temperatures rose to over 116 °F (47 °C) in the area surrounding the prison.[17][18]

Notable prisoners[edit]



The penitentiary has five custody levels:

  • Camp/Minimum: 1-4 Years
  • Protective Custody & Mental Health: 1 Year- Life
  • Medium: 1 Year- Life
  • Close: 1 Year- Life
  • Maximum/Segregation: 1 Year- Life

In Popular Culture[edit]

  • "Walla Walla" is the eighth song on The Offspring's 1998 album, Americana. The song is an ode to a friend who, after countless times getting off with a "slap on the wrist", has been sentenced to serve "three to five" years at Walla Walla.
  • The prison was used for the filming of a scene in the Swedish movie Dancer in the Dark.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Washington State Penitentiary". Archived from the original on 2011-06-13. Retrieved 2011-06-01.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Freeman, Bob (7 February 2021). "A few memorable tales of the history of the Washington State Penitentiary". Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  3. ^ Plog, Kari (2019-01-22). "Hell on Earth: A forgotten prison that predates McNeil Island". KNKX. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  4. ^ a b Wilma, David (February 6, 2003). "First convicts occupy penitentiary at Walla Walla on May 11, 1887". HistoryLink. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  5. ^ Gibson, Elizabeth (April 26, 2009). "Nine die in escape attempt at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on February 12, 1934". HistoryLink. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  6. ^ "10 CONVICTS FLEE PRISON BY TUNNEL; Felons in Washington State Escape Through Thirty-Foot Passage Dug Under Wall". The New York Times. 1955-11-04. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  7. ^ Shapiro, Nina (2017-06-12). "5 of the most daring Washington state inmate escapes". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  8. ^ Stammen, Emma (2020-01-01). "Benevolent Feminism and the Gendering of Criminality: Historical and Ideological Constructions of US Women's Prisons". Scripps Senior Theses.
  9. ^ Wilma, David (June 13, 2003). "State of Washington carries out its first execution on May 6, 1904". HistoryLink. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  10. ^ Sullivan, Jennifer (2010-09-10). "Killer on death row 16½ years is executed". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  11. ^ Johnson, Kirk (11 October 2018). "Washington State Supreme Court Deems Death Penalty Unconstitutional". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 December 2019.
  12. ^ Kershaw, Sarah (2003-11-06). "In Plea Deal That Spares His Life, Man Admits Killing 48 Women". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  13. ^ Ponti, Crystal (November 21, 2021). "What Is Gary Ridgway's Life Like In Prison Today?". A&E. Retrieved 2022-03-06.
  14. ^ Campylobacter Outbreak - Washington State Penitentiary
  15. ^ "Food issues run deep at Washington State Penitentiary".
  16. ^ Sax, Sarah. "Imprisoned in a sauna with no exit". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2022-06-05.
  17. ^ June 1, Sarah Sax Image credit: Joan Wong/High Country News; edition, 2022 From the print (2022-06-01). "When the heat is unbearable but there's nowhere to go". www.hcn.org. Retrieved 2022-06-05.
  18. ^ Bryan, Zachariah (2020-08-16). "Wrongful death suit over Mukilteo triple-murder is settled". HeraldNet.com. Retrieved 2021-09-12.
  19. ^ Seattle cop killer Christopher Monfort died of drug overdose | The Seattle Times
  20. ^ "Little Willie John is arrested for murder after performing at Seattle's Magic Inn on October 17, 1964. - HistoryLink.org". www.historylink.org. Retrieved 2016-12-18.
  21. ^ "Little Willie John". Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2016-12-18.
  22. ^ Johnson, Gary. "Michigan Rock and Roll Legends - LITTLE WILLIE JOHN". www.michiganrockandrolllegends.com. Retrieved 2016-12-18.
  23. ^ CrimeLibrary.com/Serial Killers/Sexual Predators/Robert Lee Yates Jr.: The Search for the Spokane Serial Killer
  24. ^ http://www.courts.wa.gov/content/Briefs/A02/378931%20reply.pdf[bare URL PDF]
  25. ^ "Dancer in the Dark filming locations — MovieMaps".

Further reading[edit]

  • Murray, Christopher (2016). Unusual Punishment: Inside the Walla Walla Prison 1970-1985. Washington State University Press. ISBN 978-0-87422-339-2.
  • McCoy, John (1986). Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla (1st ed.). University of Missouri Press. ISBN 978-0-8262-0604-6.
  • Longworth, Arthur (2016). Zek: An American Prison Story (1st ed.). Gabalfa Press. ISBN 978-0-9970-2990-1.

External links[edit]