The Washington State Penitentiary has a historic cemetery which dates back to the late 1800’s. This cemetery was used to bury inmates who died in prison and whose bodies were not claimed by family members. A total of 346 inmates are known to be buried there (including at least two women) along with at least six unknown and unmarked graves for someone, maybe inmates, maybe not. The headstones are marked with only the inmates’ prison number, no names or epitaph. At one time, the cemetery was nearly a half mile to the west of the prison and outside the prison walls. But over the years, as the prison population grew and the facility was expanded the cemetery eventually ended up inside the prison perimeter fence.
During the last expansion, the site surrounding the cemetery was raised and leveled off, leaving the cemetery sloping down below the ground level of the new site.
This created two problems: water collected at the low end of the cemetery creating a pond several feet deep, and it created spots for offenders which could not be seen by the guard towers. The solution was to raise the cemetery to the same level as the surrounding grade.
Our proposal to the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation was to map the entire cemetery using a Trimble GPS Unit (<10 cm accuracy), remove each headstone, bury the cemetery with clean fill dirt and replace each headstone in its exact location. In addition, since many of the old headstones were no longer legible, new headstones would be cast and placed in the location next to the original headstone. This entire project would be done using offender labor and overseen by a professional archaeologist.
The survey and mapping of the cemetery was started during the 2009 summer, field checked in the fall, backfilled this winter, and restored in the spring of 2010. However, nothing goes exactly planned, especially when you are working in a cemetery. We were plagued with multiple problems including the GPS unit not working correctly on two occasions, data glitches involving the geographical datum used for satellite location (all eventually corrected), dump trucks breaking down, scheduling conflicts with other projects, and prison lockdowns. The latest challenge is the unanticipated time it takes to replace a headstone in its exact original location. We scheduled three days, but as it turns out, it took 14 days.
Removing the headstones and the actual filling of the cemetery had to be done at night. Since we were bringing in 427 trucks of dirt from outside the perimeter fence, the prison had to be secured to make it easier to move the dump trucks through the facility. Again we used offender labor to do the actual digging up of the headstones. We asked for volunteers to help on this project but when walking out to cemetery I discovered some of the offenders weren’t completely briefed on what they would be doing. One actually thought we were going out to dig up the bodies and was concerned by the fact we were doing the work at night. One told me he wasn’t real comfortable digging around in a cemetery in the middle of the night. And, I must say digging in a cemetery at midnight on a very cold foggy winter night does add a touch of reality to the term “graveyard shift”.
Once the cemetery was filled with dirt, each gravesite was marked with a pin flag placed within 10 cm of its original location using the Trimble GPS unit.
The original headstone was “planted” at that location and a newly cast headstone was placed next to it.
Finally, a sprinkler system will be installed and the entire cemetery will be hydro seeded with grass.
As projects go, this was a very unique project. This cemetery is not one which will be visited by people; most who are buried here are long forgotten except for a number. Visitors are not allowed within the penitentiary and inmates are restricted to only certain locations and the cemetery is not one of them. But none the less, it remains as a historic site, part of Washington’s heritage.
This project is finished but one photo remains to be added, that of the completed cemetery project with the newly planted grass and landscaping. Come springtime, when the grass is green, I’ll get that photo and add it here.