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Unusual Punishment

Inside the Walla Walla Prison, 1970–1985

Christopher Murray


Unusual Punishment bares the explosive story of failed reform at one Washington State penitentiary as well as the complex, challenging, and painful path back from chaos.

“A terrific, if unsettling, even chilling, read.”—James B. Jacobs, Warren E. Burger Professor of Law at NYU and author of Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society

Illustrations / maps / notes / index / 330 pages (2016)


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Unusual Punishment details the personalities and astonishing events surrounding the collapse of a decades old prison culture and describes how leaders painfully constructed a modern control system.

The Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla was once a place where the warden exercised absolute authority. One word, and a prisoner could be held for weeks, naked, in an empty dark cell, or sent to the terrifying mental health ward where coercion included torture. Any employee could be fired at will. Guards and prisoners called it “super custody.”

Change began in the early 1970s with well-meaning but naïve reform. Inmates abused new freedoms. Chaos descended. Convicts had the only keys to certain prison areas. Bikers roared prison-made choppers around the Big Yard. Marijuana was everywhere, and hundreds shot heroin. Convicts took lives with shanks and even bombs. Frustrated and afraid, correctional officers quit or looked the other way.

A new superintendent curtailed the most dysfunctional inmate privileges, and in a dramatic midnight move, sent inmate leaders to distant prisons. In the fragile stability that followed, a guard was murdered, a long lockdown began, a cell block rioted, and more than two hundred men spent a long, hot summer in the Big Yard. Numerous officers rebelled, demanding a brutal crackdown and return to super custody. When forty-two of them refused to take their posts, the superintendent fired them all.

The courts intervened, politics changed, and in 1981, a charismatic correctional leader—charming in public and tyrannical in private—took command of a newly created department of corrections. With skill and determination, he imposed his will and transformed Washington corrections. Order returned to the penitentiary.

Illustrations / maps / notes / index / 330 pages (2016)

Watch Christopher Murray with Austin Jenkins on TVW’s Inside Olympia.

Read the Walla Walla Union Bulletin’s interview with Christopher Murray.

Want more? For a wealth of additional information, interviews, and videos, explore the author’s web page.


“A terrific, if unsettling, even chilling, read.”—James B. Jacobs, Warren E. Burger Professor of Law at NYU and author of Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society

“This is the most comprehensive analysis I have ever seen of the evolution of a state prison system.” —Joan Petersilia, Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law at Stanford Law School

“Murray captures the turbulent, chaotic and violent era of the penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington as if he were an eye witness.”—Ned Loughran, Executive Director, Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators

“[Murray] portrays the key players with a genuine feeling for their strengths, weaknesses and challenges.”—John A. McCoy, author of Concrete Mama, Prison Profiles from Walla Walla

Additional information

Dimensions 9 x 6 in