A Life and Death Sentence at Walla Walla, Recounted 50 Years Later

    [Read Part 1 of this story here]

    For a few months in 2019, Don Snook, 71, was transferred to Washington State Penitentiary (Walla Walla) for chemotherapy. It was supposed to be his end-of-life facility. Almost 50 years had passed since he was shipped to Walla Walla the first time, for assaulting a corrections officer. It was his end-of-life facility back then, too.

    Walla Walla today houses minimum-security prisoners. But in 1974, when Snook arrived to finish what was originally an 18-month sentence for a nonviolent conviction, it was where Washington State sent the “worst of the worst.” It was the site of Blood Alley. It was where prisoners were exposed to radiation to determine what levels would sterilize them. It was where they had death row, and the gallows. It’s a dark place.

    By 1977, Snook had been given a life sentence for killing one Walla Walla prisoner and a death sentence for killing a second. Washington State had abolished the death penalty in 1975, then reinstated it by ballot initiative in November that same year. The state Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in 2018, but the gallows were considered active up until the governor legally abolished capital punishment in 2023. They were the last active gallows in the country.

    Death row was the last six cells on A-Tier in Walla Walla’s administrative segregation unit, a building known as “Big Red.” A metal grate separated the condemned from the other 11 cells on the tier. The gallows were in their own building, connected on one side to Six Wing, the living unit where I was housed from 1995 to 1998.

    Death row never got direct sunlight.

    When I got to Walla Walla, the state had just carried out what would be its final execution by hanging. Prisoners could opt for lethal injection, but the default method was still the gallows. If you were housed in Six Wing at the end of A-, C-, or E-Tier, once in a blue moon you could hear the ker-thunk during test runs when they dropped the trap doors.

    By this time death row had been moved to another building and the original six cells converted to more ad seg, but you could tell those ones were different. The other cells had metal bunks; these had concrete slabs. The metal grate had been taken out, but you could see the scars on the walls where it had once been.

    Most solitary confinement cells I’ve lived in had a window. At Big Red, the windows aren’t in the cells themselves, but out on the tier’s opposite wall about 15 feet away. A-Tier never gets direct sunlight. Even with the fluorescent lights overhead, it felt dark all the time. The only other place I can recall cells that dark was the LA County Jail after the 1992 Rodney King riots, when they temporarily reopened a historic ad seg building that had been preserved as a museum.

    I spent a few months in those cells altogether, sometimes in the old death row cells; I think the longest stretch was 40 days. Snook was on death row for three years.

    “I survived,” he told Filter. “They didn’t break me.”


    The bikers club at Walla Walla, 1978-1979. Some of the lifers who’d visit Snook on death row are pictured.


    Snook was at Walla Walla during the era when prisoners ran the joint. Administration gave them their own office building and brought them into operational meetings. There were riots and pipe-bombings and constant murders and drugs used out in the open. Snook was there during all this, but it would be six years before he was a part of the general prison population.

    On Snook’s second day at Walla Walla, he was sent to the notorious Mental Health Unit for head psychologist Dr. William Hunter’s behavioral modification program. Prisoners were made to wear diapers and drink from baby bottles. Snook refused, and often spent sessions chained to a radiator at the edge of the group. 

    “It was degrading,” Snook said. He recalled Hunter, sporting a flat-top haircut and a Western bolo tie, standing over him during their first meeting and saying, “Don, I’ve been breaking horses for 20 years. If I can break a horse, I can break any man.”

    This was before Snook was put into the actual program. He first spent 16 days in restraints while Hunter’s favorite prisoners injected him with thorazine and hosed him with cold water, and sometimes mopped up the piss and shit. One of them wrung the mop out over Snook’s face. Eight months later Snook ran into him during a stint in ad seg, and killed him.

    It was unusual that someone on death row was serving both a life sentence and a death sentence.

    Because everyone on death row is in prison for the rest of their lives, they’re also considered lifers. But it was unusual for someone to begin serving a death sentence while already serving a life sentence. By the time he was moved to death row, Snook was a bona fide member of the Lifers Club.

    The Lifers Club had a certain amount of power. There were a lot of lifers at Walla Walla, and they were organized. If they pushed for a given issue, administration often listened. This was how Snook came to be allowed visits from the other members, who’d stand in front of his cell for a few minutes. 

    In 1980 Snook won an appeal and had his death sentence dropped to life. He was taken off death row, put straight into ad seg, and tried to kill himself not long after. By that time he’d been in one form of segregation or another almost continuously for six years.

    “I wanted to end it,” he told Filter. He described several more attempts to end his own life, and several attempts by cops to end it, too. But he lived.


    An ad seg cell in Big Red, not far from Snook’s.


    B-Tier, pictured above and in the photograph at the top of the article, is mirrored by A-Tier on the opposite side of the building; A-Tier has the same layout, but no sunlight comes in.


    Over the course of Snook’s 50 years in prison, Washington State executed five people, the last of them in 2010. Death row, primarily, isn’t a place people are sent to die. It’s a place people are sent to live in deprivation. 

    Walla Walla is almost a century older than the Washington State Department of Corrections, and three years older than Washington State itself. Since it was opened in 1886 it’s been retrofitted with things like electricity and plumbing, but nothing really works. The walls are covered in concrete because the bricks underneath are crumbling. At Washington Corrections Center, where both Snook and I are currently incarcerated, prisoners who’ve been at Walla Walla within the past few months told Filter that A-Tier is still used for ad seg, but all the bars have been covered over with sheet metal and plexiglass. So the cells get even hotter now.

    When I was in those cells 23 hours a day, they didn’t take us outside during the hour they let us out. But they let us walk up and down the tier in pairs, for the sake of human contact. It was the same for the non-death row prisoners in Big Red back when Snook was there. The death row prisoners would be taken outside to a small yard that was just for them, but only one at a time.

    Most of the sparrows were named Chance.

    During his years on death row, Snook’s closest company were critters: eight cockroaches, one black widow, one bobtail mouse and 25 sparrows.

    The cockroaches lived in a shoe box. Constance, the black widow, did kill one of them, but she never bit Snook. She lived in two Styrofoam cups joined together. Snook had poked in air holes, and added some twigs and things. He let her crawl all over him. 

    The mouse’s name was Herman. He had his own corner of the cell, but after death row got TV sets out on the tier Herman would climb up on the concrete slab with Snook and lay on his chest to watch with him. Snook smiles as he talks about Herman.

    Most of the sparrows were named Chance. The Lifers would find them mangled from flying into the razor wire, and hand them through the bars to Snook. He splinted their wings and cleaned their wounds. He made them nests out of his T-shirts. He fed them chewed-up bread from his own mouth, like he was their mother. One of his favorites would hop down a few cells to one of the other men on death row and steal his socks. Then drag them back to Snook.

    When the sparrows were healthy Snook would take them out to the small yard and set them free. 



    First, second, third and fourth photographs taken 1978-1979 by Ethan Hoffman, via Washington Prison History Project and University of Washington Bothell Digital Collections/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He’s incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he’s a Teacher’s Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His Washington State Department of Corrections job is crafting quilts out of recycled materials to donate to nonprofits for fundraising. His writing has been published by the Appeal, Truthout, Jewish Currents and the Seattle Journal for Social Justice. His ID number in WDOC is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 28-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”

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