WALLA WALLA – Since he took the helm at the Washington State Penitentiary this spring, Superintendent Jeff Uttecht has wasted little time getting his feet wet – or muddy.
“I was asked what a good superintendent looks like. He’s one with dirty shoes,” Uttecht said recently.
He’s overseen a major expansion project at the same time he’s gotten acquainted with the officers, staff and inmates in the sprawling complex.
The 47-year-old Uttecht came from Nebraska in April to replace former Superintendent Dick Morgan, who was promoted to become a Department of Corrections assistant deputy secretary.
Uttecht was deputy warden at the Lincoln Correctional Center in Lincoln, Neb., a medium- and maximum-security facility with an average inmate population of about 500 and a staff of about 232.
Here, he’s managing a much larger facility that has a staff of about 900 employees and some 2,000 inmates.
“Getting to know the staff is a top priority,” Uttecht said. “I’m frankly very impressed with the quality of the staff.”
It’s a job that usually starts at 6:30 a.m. and often goes through the evening, he said. “I left all my vacation time in Nebraska, and I also left all my sick time there, too,” Uttecht said. “So I’m pretty much stuck here.”
Days are filled with office work, staff meetings, conferences with officials in Olympia and elsewhere and meeting people. The expansion project and upcoming accreditation process are top priorities.
Getting to work is a breeze for the prison official, whose residence is on the prison grounds. “It’s about three minutes from my house to the office,” he said.
Even the residents of the state’s maximum-security prison recognize the greenhorn.
“I was just walking through an area and an inmate came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you the superintendent?’
“I said, ‘Yes, I am,’ and he said, ‘How do I get a special visit?’ and I said, ‘Well, you’ll need to see your unit manager to find out how to do that.’
“Then he said, ‘How can I get an early release?’ and again I had to say, ‘Gosh, I’m not sure, again that’s something you’ll need to see your unit manager about.’
“And then he kind of looked at me funny and said, ‘You’re new around here, aren’t you?’ “