State prison lockdown entering fourth week

WALLA WALLA — A lockdown at the Washington State Penitentiary has entered its fourth week. That's the longest such discipline at the prison since 1979.

Prisoners spend most of the day in their cells because of concerns about attacks on corrections officers by inmates who are unhappy with a new dining-hall policy.

The policy is designed to keep "predator" inmates from intimidating other prisoners, according to penitentiary spokeswoman Lori Scamahorn.

Scamahorn said Wednesday that prison officials were developing a plan to end the lockdown in the next few days.

Although the penitentiary was locked down for 84 days in 1979, lockdowns typically last only a few days.

The current lockdown was imposed March 1 when an inmate attacked three corrections officers in the dining hall. One officer suffered a broken elbow when he came to the aid of a colleague who was struck in the head with a meal tray, Scamahorn said.

The extended lockdown was imposed because prison officials received reports that more attacks on guards were planned, she said.

Inmates are upset because they fear new dining-hall procedures may restrict the amount of food they get as well as their ability to sit where they please, Scamahorn said. Inmate workers who dish out food and those who receive it no longer can see each other, so diners can't get larger portions through intimidation or friendship, she said.

A new wall with small slits for food trays now separates food workers from diners, and a new rail keeps those waiting for food from mingling with those who have been served.

After they get their food, inmates are required to take a seat in a certain row of tables. In the past, they could go to any table in the dining hall.

A stricter tier-by-tier release to the dining hall also prevents inmates in one tier of cells from mixing with those in another, Scamahorn said.

She said the new "blind seating" procedures are similar to those already in effect at the rest of the state's prisons.

Small groups of inmates were allowed to return to the dining hall last week so they can gradually become accustomed to the new system.

Prisoners in the kitchen work program were allowed to return to duty Monday, but other work and education programs remain closed.

Although inmates are spending most of their time in their cells, they have been getting out for the recreation and every-third-day showers required by penitentiary policy. But the releases are in small groups and for shorter periods.