Christopher Murray first went behind the walls of the Washington State Penitentiary in July 1976, as an employee of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Everywhere he looked, men lounged about talking, laughing, playing music, and smoking. Clearly, the mixed aroma revealed it wasn’t just tobacco. As he entered the big cell house, he immediately noticed a striking blonde in a mini-skirt on the tier two stories above. “You mean they let women in here?” he asked, wide-eyed. His escort replied nonchalantly. “That’s not a woman.”
Initially, Murray assumed all prisons were like that. They weren’t. In fact, there wasn’t another on the planet quite like the one in Walla Walla, and the naïve young architect knew he was witnessing something extraordinary—a story that should be told.
Eventually Murray took a sabbatical to concentrate on research. He read fifteen years of newspapers and interviewed scores of people—from inmates to governors. Typically, the author and convicts met alone. A recording device was placed on a table and Murray would choose the chair closest to the door in case he needed a swift escape. But one day, his visit with a seasoned offender—a man almost certainly familiar with slit throats—also involved the superintendent’s assistant, a young attractive female. Her neck had a long fresh scar with stitches that stretched across it like a necklace. She had just had a thyroidectomy, and he has often wondered about the effect of her appearance on that session.
Life intervened and his book languished. Now retired, Murray resumed his efforts, conducting additional interviews and spending weeks underground in the state archives examining documents. This time, he finished the manuscript.
Christopher Murray, “Unusual Punishment: Inside the Walla Walla Prison, 1970–1985”
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