Gov. Gary Locke, a former prosecutor elected on a tough-on-crime platform last fall, toured the toughest units at the state penitentiary Wednesday and declared public safety to be one of his administration’s highest priorities.
Locke inspected new security installations and procedures aimed at avoiding a repeat of a daring escape in March that proved it’s possible to break out of even ultra-maximum security. The governor said he’s satisfied that the emergency improvements will keep that from happening again.
During a daylong trip to the TriCities and Walla Walla, the governor carved out several hours to tour the state’s oldest and largest prison. Part of the penitentiary predates statehood. The flagship institution, with a population of nearly 2,300, houses some of the state’s most hardened criminals.
“There are some very mean bad actors here,” Locke said after his tour, which included the Big Yard, where shirtless, shouting inmates hooted and called out to the governor when they spotted him. When several made menacing gestures and started toward Locke, Superintendent Tana Wood whisked him to safety.
Locke toured the tiers of 6-Wing, an old, dark cellblock that brought to mind the movie “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Though it was mid-afternoon, most of the inmates were in their bunks, watching TV. The governor stopped and talked with some of them, asking them what they were in for and telling them, “Hang in there.”
In a prison inmate shop, several dozen prisoners, mostly in for murder, beamed as Locke moved through the rows of sewing machines to ask questions and say hello. It’s good time and it pays minimum wage, he was told. Some are sending money home and all are expected to contribute to the cost of their imprisonment and restitution for their victims.
Everywhere he went, Locke talked with guards. He yelled up to one young guard in a control tower, “How long ya been on duty?”
“Five years,” the guard replied. Locke laughed and moved on.
But he was most interested in the Intensive Management Unit, the most secure facility and the scene of the embarrassing, but ultimately uneventful escape last March.
The 96-cell unit, a fortress-like building surrounded by razor wire, fences and guard towers outside the main prison, houses Death Row and other inmates considered so dangerous they are kept locked in their cells 23 hours a day, released only in shackles for an hour so they can use an exercise yard by themselves.
Locke moved briskly through the short corridors, with most inmates standing mutely at the windows of their cells, staring or scowling at the governor and his party. Several gave an upturned middle finger to the passersby. Several inmates were naked.
Locke went into an empty cell, roughly the size of a walk-in closet, to see first-hand how convicted murderer John Lamb was able to use a smuggled hack-saw blade to cut through the heavy plastic of a light fixture cover and hack through a reinforcement bar blocking the opening behind. The inmate then entered a crawl space, broke the lock on a maintenance door to the outside and bolted over two fences topped with razor ribbon with nothing more than a scratch.
No one - including a tower officer on duty - noticed a thing. It was the first escape from the supposedly escape-proof facility since it opened in 1984.
Lamb was recaptured later that day near a highway off-ramp in Walla Walla.