He'll call 'Concrete Mama' home

December 20, 2003 

WALLA WALLA - Soon, Gary Leon Ridgway likely will call this home - the state's largest prison, with its wire-topped fences, 15 towers with armed guards and the nickname "Concrete Mama" for its ability, like a mother, to draw men back again and again.

The 54-year-old Federal Way-area truck painter, who was sentenced Thursday for murdering four dozen women, will spend the rest of his life in lockup.

Ridgway, who admits he was the elusive Green River Killer, might never leave the beige-painted cinder block walls of the Washington State Penitentiary in rural Eastern Washington.

The penitentiary is one of three maximum-security lockups in the state where Ridgway, who last month admitted hunting and strangling 48 women, could grow old.

It's where most "lifers" like Ridgway at least begin their sentences, after mental and physical evaluations at the prison in Shelton. It's where all death row inmates live.

The "Concrete Mama" is not a warm, nurturing parent.

"Most prisoners think of Walla Walla as hard time," penitentiary spokeswoman Lori Scamahorn said of the 2,200 men at the prison.

Men serving "life without" the possibility of release must cope with the noise, the routine, the threat of violence, and the lack of comfort and true friendship.

"It's your choice how you do your time here," said Mitchell Rupe, who killed tellers Twila Capron and Candace Hemmig while robbing an Olympia bank in 1981.

"Some people take longer to learn that. Lots of knuckleheads," said the 49-year-old Rupe, interviewed at the prison last week. "But you either deal with life on a level you accept here, or you're just going to burn yourself out."

Rupe said he finds qualified happiness in good visits, good mail and rare good meals, like biscuits and gravy on Saturday mornings.

"I try not to waste any day," said the portly and gregarious prisoner, who gained notoriety in the 1990s while challenging the state's use of hanging for executions. A judge ruled that because Rupe weighed more than 400 pounds he could not be hanged without threat of decapitation. But the question became moot when a law was passed making lethal injection the state's presumed method of execution.

Today there's a boredom inherent in life at the prison Rupe, with a laugh, calls "Wally World."

"Shower, slop, break, slop, work, slop, work, TV, bed," he said. "Get up and do it again."

Some inmates turn bitter, he said. Some "medicate" themselves. Some become spiritual. Some delve into law books.

In recent years, opportunities to earn college degrees have disappeared, though inmates still can take anger management or victim awareness classes.

Those who behave well might win jobs - as janitors, bakers or welders - or the right to cultivate hobbies. Rupe works in the hobby shop and spends free hours there, painting models.

David Lewis Rice, serving a life sentence for killing Seattle attorney Charles Goldmark and his family on Christmas Eve in 1985, has tooled leather belts, wallets and artwork for years.

"It's real relaxed," said 45-year-old Rice. "I enjoy going in there and almost forgetting where you are. You're doing something for yourself rather than working for the state or eating state food."

Not for Ridgway

But the jobs and hobbies that help inmates make the best of it probably won't be a part of Ridgway's life soon, if ever.

"Gary Ridgway is not going to be in the inmate activity center," said Scamahorn, the penitentiary spokeswoman. "Gary Ridgway is not going to be at the hobby shop. Gary Ridgway is going to be in the Intensive Management Unit."

That unit, set apart from the general population by 150 yards, two fences and coils of razor wire, is "specifically designed to house the most problematic, violent offenders in the state," unit manager Sean Murphy said.

It's home to death row inmates awaiting execution, as well as inmates who have been violent and those in protective custody.

Officials will need to keep other inmates from killing Ridgway.

"Inmates have a code of their own, too," Scamahorn said. "There's going to be those inmates for whatever reason that feel he didn't get the justice he deserved."

An inmate serving five years for a King County drug conviction said officials won't ever let Ridgway into the general population.

"He would be a target, and it would cause some serious problems," said the inmate, who didn't want to be identified. "They (his victims) may have been hookers, but they were still people. He's got a lot of people who are upset at this guy. I hate that he did get a plea bargain."

Just as prisoners don't accept cellmates and chow partners who hurt or sexually attack children, they don't like men like Ridgway who preyed on women, had sex with corpses or got special deals from prosecutors.

"There are probably guys in here who have killed one person or two people, and they got the death penalty," Scamahorn said. "Ridgway has killed 48. Why should he get special treatment?"

Scamahorn said Spokane Rapist Kevin Coe is an example of what can happen to high-profile criminals.

"Somebody tried to slit his throat," Scamahorn said. "That's the criminal code."

In August, an inmate in a Massachusetts prison strangled fellow prisoner John Geoghan, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest and convicted child molester housed in protective custody.

To keep Ridgway safe, prison staff members likely will keep him, during his first years, in a 81-square-foot cell, where he'll spend 23 hours a day.

He'll eat alone, exercise alone five hours a week in a 1,200-square-foot "yard" and have contact with other inmates only by yelling into a speaker on his door.

"I would consider it like being on the phone with a bad line," said Murphy, who has listened to inmates talk about virtually everything through the speakers. "I've heard them talk about the war, their interactions with staff, what got them here."

Ridgway's visits - with only immediate family, for an hour or two once or twice a week - will be through glass.

His only physical contact will be corrections officers touching him as they take him, handcuffed, to the shower or to exercise.

Alone in beige cells

The 87 inmates in the unit spend their time reading and writing, alone in their beige cells, adorned only with a concrete platform and a thin mattress, a light that never goes off, and a stainless steel sink and a toilet.

Over time, if they don't cause trouble and keep themselves and their cells clean, they're allowed more books, longer visits and potentially a radio or television if they buy them, Murphy said.

They can talk to a social worker and to religious leaders who visit. Some inmates earn janitorial jobs. Some take GED classes taught, through glass, by a Walla Walla Community College teacher. Some take anger management or victim awareness classes taught by video.

"We try to help them," Murphy said. "If we've got a guy who acts out but has history as an interest, we'll give him a history book."

Eventually, death row inmates or inmates in protective custody can move to Unit 5, where they're allowed more property, including tobacco. There, they can hug visitors, and inmates who aren't facing execution can have cellmates.

Learning to cope with life in prison is a process for the men who know they'll die there.

"Time is what takes care of the adjustment period," said Nancy Frazier-Jarvis, who manages a 142-inmate maximum security unit in the prison's general population. "Some of them go through something similar to a grief cycle. Then there's just resignation."

He tries to help

Rice said the only thing he can try to do is help someone else while he's inside.

"If by my words or my example I can keep some guy from coming back, I've done something," said Rice, a right-wing extremist who killed the Goldmark family because he mistakenly thought they were Jewish communists. "A lot of what these guys need is some encouragement. There's nothing encouraging here."

Rice said that for his crime, it's reasonable that he should spend the rest of his life in prison.

"So that made it a little easier to accept," said Rice, who's been at Walla Walla 18 years and works 120 hours a month punching holes in sheet metal to make lockers and office furniture.

"Still, I'm here," he said. "The main problem with a 'life without' sentence is you know you're never going to be able to come into any intimate contact with anyone you care about.

"Essentially, you're already dead. It's just when they get around to burial."

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660
karen.hucks@mail.tribnet.com

SIDEBAR: FACTS ABOUT WASHINGTON STATE PENITENTIARY

Inmate population: About 2,200 men (women are at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Purdy)

Visitors: For most inmates, three days a week at the most

A recent lunch: Breaded fish, fresh-baked bread, macaroni and cheese, salad, soup, peaches

Inmate clothing: Personal clothes for most in the general population; orange jail fatigues for those in the Intensive Management Unit

Potential wages: For many inmates (including clerks and janitors in the Intensive Management Unit), 35 cents an hour or up to $55 a month, of which as much as 40 percent goes to the Crime Victims' fund, prison debts and child support. Inmates with industrial jobs making license plates, signs and clothes can earn up to $1.10 an hour, with up to 85 percent going to crime victims, incarceration costs, mandatory savings (for inmates who aren't in for life), legal financial obligations, prison debts and any child support.

Among the things inmates buy: Personal hygiene products, food (Top Ramen and Little Debbie cupcakes are popular), tobacco, television sets, radios, AM/FM cassette players, fans and magazine subscriptions (including Playboy and Hustler)

Karen Hucks, The News Tribune

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