New fence at prison looks like -- but didn't cost -- a million bucks

The new cross-buck fence at the penitentiary may look spendy, but teamwork kept the cost down to only a few thousand dollars.

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WALLA WALLA -- As part of its 125th anniversary, the most-visible part of the Washington State Penitentiary has a new look that celebrates its history, at a considerable savings to taxpayers.

A new grand entrance and white cross-buck fence running along 13th Avenue is a replication of the prison's original frontage from the early 1900s. Although primarily decorative, the arch and fence have a practical purpose, serving as a visible marker of the prison's boundaries as required by Department of Corrections policies, said Shari Hall, penitentiary spokeswoman.

But, Hall said, the most fascinating aspect of the project was the partnerships used to design, build and place the structures.

Once the decision to install a historically appropriate fence was made, prison officials also decided to "do it in a way to save even more money, put offenders to work, encourage sustainability and improve the public view of (the prison)," Hall wrote.

A partnership with Correctional Industries found wood for the fence by having inmates disassemble wooden pallets, sort through recycled materials and locate and clean up old, used lumber at the prison. The primer and paint needed were located by a Washington State University consortium from materials scheduled for disposal by a school district on the west side.

By using recycled wood and salvaged paint, the fence was finished for about $4,400, Hall said, or about 95 percent less than the estimated cost of having the fence built out of new materials by contractors.

The entrance arch was another cooperative project involving penitentiary staff and the local community.

The prison's original entrance was a large wooden arch that was removed sometime in the early 1910s or 1920s and replaced by the concrete markers still seen today. As the prison approached its 125th anniversary, "we wanted to do something special to honor our heritage," Hall said. This resulted in a plan to replicate the old grand entrance arch, only this time with one made of metal.

Conceptual drawings were created through a collaborative effort between prison staff and Walla Walla Community College, which donated its efforts. Penitentiary engineering staff and inmates then built the entrance by hand from raw steel while Correctional Industries donated the use of a computerized laser cutter for the lettering.

The prison has invested a little more than $10,100 worth of material into what would have been a project costing more than $100,000, Hall said. Donations to a "recognition and memory wall" project to acknowledge prison staff who have worked at the facility through its history will help pay for both the memory wall and the entrance arch, bringing the cost down to $2,500, she said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.
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