PULLMAN, Wash.— The 1970s and 80s saw a cultural shift in prisons across the country, but only one became the archetype of failed reform. That singular institution was the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Reports of shocking incidents there were splashed across newspapers and television screens nationwide. For the first time, Unusual Punishment: Inside the Walla Walla Prison, 1970–1985, tells the complete story—one of the most bizarre chapters in American prison history.

Pre-reform in the Walla Walla penitentiary, the warden ruled everything and everyone. Inmates and guards alike called it “super custody.” Despite its alarming aspects, a number of prisoners preferred that incarceration model. Because someone else told them what, when, and how to do everything—even down to the length of their hair—they weren’t required to think.

But the author observed a far different custody culture in July 1976. A young architect fresh from graduate school, Christopher Murray had just started working for the agency responsible for the state’s prisons. Instead of the strictly controlled model he envisioned, it appeared as though the offenders were in charge. They wandered around outside, talking, laughing, and playing music. He could smell marijuana. “I knew at the time that I was witnessing something extraordinary,” he remembers. “There wasn’t another prison on the planet quite like the Washington State Penitentiary.” The complex would continue its descent into chaos until there were lockdowns, riots, bombings, and murders. In the end, even many of the guards rebelled.

Although other books give voice to inmate experiences, Unusual Punishment fully examines how and why the system collapsed, and the story Murray uncovers deviates from commonly repeated versions. He conducted dozens of interviews in order to share perspectives from administrators, staff, convicts, and politicians, and reveals the extreme measures it took to regain control. He also discusses the core of the revised system that exists today. Murray stresses that as a young man he encountered people who did courageous things—particularly superintendent Jim Spalding, who became one of his greatest inspirations. “He definitely was one of my heroes,” he says.