Christopher Murray’s “Unusual Punishment: Inside the Walla Walla Prison, 1970-1985” revisits a reform era in the Washington State Penitentiary, when a regime of relaxed rules and regulations degenerated into violence and murder.

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‘Unusual Punishment: Inside the Walla Walla Prison, 1970-1985’

by Christopher Murray

Washington State University Press, 306 pp., $22.95

In the years covered in “Unusual Punishment,” the Walla Walla state prison doesn’t sound like such a bad place — except for the murders.

And the rapes, bombs, riots, fires, stabbings, beatings and other assaults.

But an inmate during the 1970s could choose what cell to live in, could dress as he pleased, keep as much personal property as his cell could hold and belong to a club that held banquets in quarters locked to keep out bothersome correctional officers.

These were, in the words of the book’s author, Christopher Murray, the “accumulated dysfunctional privileges that compromised the ability of the correctional officers to control the prison.”

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Murray writes that the reforms at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla started with views popular in the late 1960s, brought to Washington mostly by psychiatrist William Conte, who became director of the Department of Institutions under Gov. Daniel Evans. Conte held that the prison had the potential for being a “social psychiatric setting,” that prisoner rehabilitation was possible and was the goal under state law.

So he sent B. J. Rhay, then Walla Walla superintendent, to Europe to see how prisons were run there. When Rhay returned, the rigidity of prison operations started to relax from its top-down control, starting with the warden, to guards (soon to become correctional officers) to convicts (soon to become inmates), who were allowed to form “resident government.”

But by the end of the decade, it was obvious that too much control had gone over to the inmates. Two prisoners committed murders while outside the walls on furloughs. Two correctional officers were killed inside the prison. The officers felt unsafe and demoralized, and their union became hostile to the prison administration. There were inmate murders, riots, lockdowns, lawsuits and a wildcat strike by correctional officers.

The summer of 1979 started with the murder of Sgt. William Cross, a corrections officer, and continued with prisoners locked in their cells during months of stifling heat. That tense time saw destruction in part of the prison as inmates tore toilets from the walls of their cells.

The time seemed right time for a physical remodel that would make movement of prisoners more secure. Those in charge of the prison in this era — Amos Reed, Jim Spalding, Bob Kastama, Walter Kautzky, Larry Kincheloe — orchestrated a turning-away from the earlier reforms.

Murray worked for the agency responsible for Washington’s prisons and later ran his own consulting firm that provided planning, research and policy analysis to correctional agencies. His dozens of interviews for the book included those with inmates, prison administrators and politicians.

“Unusual Punishment” gives readers inside baseball inside the walls. The book paints a vivid picture of the prison from 1970 to 1985 but often buries that in names and details about the prison administration both in Walla Walla and in state government in Olympia.

This revealing portrait of a strange time in state history doesn’t draw a connection to today’s events, which include recent revelations that as many as 3,700 prisoners may have been mistakenly released early since 2002, and that two of them have been charged with murders committed when they should have been behind bars.

This has been blamed on faulty software, a problem that could not have been addressed in 1985. But it appears that officials continued the early releases after the problem was identified, signaling a failure in basic administration, a central theme in “Unusual Punishment.”

It may be time for Murray to have another go at the prison system.