Penitentiary is good fit for Walla Walla for 125 years

The community wanted the prison 125 years ago and it wants to keep it here today.

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Last week Washington State Penitentiary employees -- their friends and families -- gathered on the grounds to celebrate the institution's 125th anniversary. The prison has been located in Walla Walla longer than Washington has been a state. The territorial prison was established with 93 inmates in 1887, two years before Washington joined the union.

"It's grown, it's changed, but it still has the same heart and soul," said Department of Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner.

The employees. The men and women who run the prison -- from the corrections officers to the support staff to the administrators -- are why the prison has become such an important part of this community for 125 years.

"This spot of dirt on the hill does not define the Washington State Penitentiary," Superintendent Steve Sinclair said. "What makes us are the people who work here."

Walla Walla, then a town of about 6,000, campaigned for the new facility to replace a privately run prison in Seatco, a tiny town that today is called Bucoda (population about 700) located on Highway 507 between Centralia and Tenino.

That zeal for the prison remains today.

The penitentiary has been a source of community pride as it has provided many well-paying jobs over the 125 years. Sure, there've been a few tough spots -- the 1970s, for example, when so-called reforms left the inmates in charge -- but the prison staff and community worked through it all.

The penitentiary emerged stronger. It is today a well-run institution in which the inmates and staff are safe.

This community has helped in the endeavor as it has rallied behind the prison employees to urge the Legislature to provide adequate funding for the proper number of employees to keep the institution safe.

When the state was looking to reduce the number of prison beds statewide, it considered closing the old main institution. It didn't seem a prudent move until a new unit could be built to replace it. The size of the Washington State Penitentiary coupled with the experience of its staff makes running a prison more efficient and cost effective.

Ultimately, lawmakers went in that direction. They took a more forward-thinking approach and approved funding to expand and modernize the penitentiary.

The $42.5 million expansion project was the largest in this year's capital budget.

The new additions at the Walla Walla institution will allow for a smooth transition when the main institution is totally closed. Units are now starting to be shut down.

Still, obtaining the funding wasn't easy in the current economic climate. The community lobbied in Olympia through former state Rep. Dave Mastin.

The future for the penitentiary in Walla Walla looks bright as the older buildings are being replaced with modern facilities that will continue to be staffed by professional, well-trained officers.

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