WALLA WALLA — Giovanni Walker peered through the tiny window on his metal cell door clamoring to talk about Washington State Penitentiary's new gang unit.
"It's a little ridiculous that we're not allowed to go with the other units," said Walker, a 26-year-old from the San Francisco Bay area serving five years for assault and drug possession.
Walker's been in Unit F at the Walla Walla prison for about two months and has interaction only with the other 98 prisoners in the east section of his unit when it's time to eat or have recreation time in the yard.
Prisoners are segregated and their movements are limited in the new high-risk west complex by design, so corrections officers can keep a closer eye on them and prevent fights.
"What's most important to me is trying to create a safe place for offenders to live and for my staff to work," said prison Superintendent Steve Sinclair.
That's what the "direct supervision" housing model strives to accomplish, state Department of Corrections officials said during a media tour of the units that opened last year.
The complex was designed to house gang-affiliated prisoners in four, 198-bed units, which are then separated into east and west sections.
"The dynamics are much easier to manage and it's easier to deal with prison politics in smaller groups," Sinclair said.
The units are more circular, allowing officers to see all the cells on both floors and letting prisoners see officers all the time.
"It's constructed in a way to maximize interaction with staff," said Dan Pacholke, DOC deputy director.
It's also unlike the traditional cell blocks that many people are likely familiar with from the movies with long, multilevel rows of cells.
It's safer because prisoners are secured behind solid doors instead of just bars, and officers don't have to walk by the cell in order to see what's going on inside.
The gang unit also allows prison officials to send all gang-affiliated prisoners to Walla Walla, reducing the number of fights and retaliations at other prisons around the state.
About 18 percent of the state's 18,000 prisoners are identified as gang members, and they were responsible for about 43 percent of all violent major infractions in fiscal years 2004-08, officials said.
Nortenos and Surenos are the problem gangs behind the prison walls and actually have to be kept in separate units at Walla Walla, said Lisa Oliver-Estes, the unit manager.
Other gang groups are intermingled with each other, she said.
Even with an increasing prison population, officials say they had 200 fewer violent incidents last year compared with 2007, which shows the changes are working.
The men locked up in the new units, however, had mixed reviews.
Robert Walker, a 21-year-old from Seattle who shares cell E-125 with Giovanni Walker, says the unit is cleaner with fewer people, but it's not always better.
"We're tied down a lot (in the cell), but it's prison, so I expect it," said Walker, serving an 18-year sentence for first-degree assault. "The room is bigger, but you know ..."
Another prisoner, "Blue" said he doesn't think the new unit is any safer than the old models, but he thinks they are able to have more freedom and move around more than he used to.
The movement, however is more restricted.
Still, "I'd rather live back in the old units," said the 24-year-old Pasco native from Seattle, who's served about 10 years of a 17-year sentence for assault. "As with everything in life, you need to get accustomed to change."
w Paula Horton: 582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org