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State’s oldest female inmate, 83, mentors younger prisoners

At 83, Darlene Green is the oldest female inmate in Washington state’s correctional system. Green, convicted of the manslaughter of her husband, William Green, tries to encourage other inmates to better themselves. (Associated Press)
At 83, Darlene Green is the oldest female inmate in Washington state’s correctional system. Green, convicted of the manslaughter of her husband, William Green, tries to encourage other inmates to better themselves. (Associated Press)

PURDY, Wash. – Darlene Green is always perplexed whenever she sees other inmates at Washington Corrections Center for Women watching television shows set in prisons.

“I’ll say, ‘How can you watch that?’ ” she asks, shaking her head. “We’re in here. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The Illahee woman, serving a five-year sentence for manslaughter, has things in common with her fellow inmates at Purdy and the ones depicted on TV. She has a job collecting recyclables from around the prison grounds that pays 42 cents an hour. She both asks and answers one of the most common questions among prisoners: “What are you in for?” She jokes about “deciding” to wear the fraying gray sweats that constitute her uniform, “again.”

But she is different from the entire population. At 83, she is the oldest female inmate in the state’s prison system, where the average age is 38. And, in a place where many inmates are repeat offenders, she came to the institution with nary a speeding ticket to her name before she was convicted in 2012 of fatally shooting her husband.

“When they leave, I always tell them, ‘Don’t come back,’ ” Green said.

Be it her age or reputation, she’s become a protected figure at Purdy, according to other inmates who’ve served time with her. They’ll sneak her food. Write her cards. One inmate even penned a rap about her.

“The women that live around her make sure she’s taken care of,” said Karen Lockhart, a former inmate who was her roommate. “And all of the young girls protect her.”

Green’s found a calling meting out words of wisdom to young, troubled women, encouraging them to pursue their education or attain new job skills within the prison’s many programs.

“They don’t shun me because I’m old. They include me,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “They’ll holler across the yard and say, ‘Hi, Mrs. Green, how you doing today?’  ”

Still, Green, an executive assistant for 30 years in the U.S. government, never fully escapes the reality that she is incarcerated. She maintains her innocence and calls her imprisonment a “nightmare.”

“Sometimes you just want to scream,” she said, tears in her eyes. “You have to believe you’ll get home.”

Nearly four years ago, police were called to Green’s Illahee Road home. William “Billy” Green, her husband of 57 years, lay dead on their living room floor, the victim of a gunshot wound. Darlene Green, her nightgown spotted in blood, was arrested and taken to the Kitsap County Jail on suspicion of murder.

William Green, 81 when he died, was known as a longtime lineman for Puget Power, a dedicated Elks Club member and friendly neighbor to many in Illahee.

The case went to trial two years later in Kitsap County Superior Court. Prosecutors told jurors that Darlene Green, 79 at the time, told “literally everyone she spoke to that day” that her husband retrieved a revolver and told her to shoot him while she sat in a recliner. They also faulted her for not calling 911.

Her attorney, Roger Hunko, countered to jurors that his client was “now sure she did not shoot” her husband. The state’s crime lab expert testified she couldn’t tell if William Green had shot himself or not. The defense called its own expert, who said he believed it was a suicide.

Prosecutors had argued for a murder conviction. Unexpectedly, jurors opted for the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Green was handcuffed and led away from the courtroom. Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jay B. Roof later sentenced her to 60 months of prison time, well below the standard eight-plus years other defendants would face for the crime.

WCCW, or Purdy, the state’s main facility for female offenders, houses more than 700, from the best- to the worst-behaved. “I didn’t know what to expect here,” Green said. “It’s certainly better than the county (jail), that’s all I can say. You can go outside, see the birds and the bees.”

Her case is on appeal with the state’s court of appeals. Green’s attorney allowed the Kitsap Sun to interview her on condition that the appeal not be discussed, so as to not interfere with the judicial process.

For now, she clings to and cherishes her memories from the outside world: the first 79 years of her life.

“I can remember way back,” she said, “and I’m thankful for that.”