PURDY — Darlene Green is always perplexed whenever she sees other inmates at Washington Corrections Center for Women watching television shows set in prisons.
“I’ll say, ‘How can you watch that?”’ she asks, shaking her head. “We’re in here. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The Illahee woman, serving a five-year sentence for manslaughter, has things in common with her fellow inmates at Purdy and the ones depicted on TV. She has a job collecting recyclables from around the prison grounds that pays 42 cents an hour. She both asks and answers one of the most common questions among prisoners: “What are you in for?” She jokes about “deciding” to wear the fraying gray sweats that constitute her uniform, “again.”
But she is different from the entire population. At 83, she is the oldest woman inmate in the state’s prison system, where the average age is 38. And, in a place where many inmates are repeat offenders, she came to the institution with nary a speeding ticket to her name before she was convicted in 2012 of fatally shooting her husband.
“When they leave, I always tell them, ‘Don’t come back,”’ Green says of the advice she gives to departing inmates.
A protected figure
Be it her age or reputation, she’s become a protected figure at Purdy, according to other inmates who’ve served time with her. They’ll sneak her food. Write her cards. One inmate even penned a rap about her.
“The women that live around her make sure she’s taken care of,” said Karen Lockhart, a former inmate who was her roommate. “And all of the young girls protect her.”
Green’s found a calling meting out words of wisdom to young, troubled women, encouraging them to pursue their education or attain new job skills within the prison’s many programs.
“They don’t shun me because I’m old. They include me,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “They’ll holler across the yard and say, ‘Hi, Mrs. Green, how you doing today?”’
Still, Green, an executive assistant for 30 years in the U.S. government, never fully escapes the reality that she is incarcerated. She maintains her innocence and calls her imprisonment a “nightmare.”
“Sometimes you just want to scream,” she said, tears in her eyes. “You have to believe you’ll get home.”
Nearly four years ago, police were called to Green’s Illahee Road home. William “Billy” Green, her husband of 57 years, lay dead on their living room floor, the victim of a gunshot wound. Darlene Green, her nightgown spotted in blood, was arrested and taken to the Kitsap County Jail on suspicion of murder.
William Green, 81 when he died, was known as a longtime lineman for Puget Power, a dedicated Elks Club member and friendly neighbor to many in Illahee.
The case went to trial two years later in Kitsap County Superior Court. Prosecutors told jurors that Green, 79 at the time, told “literally everyone she spoke to that day” that her husband retrieved a revolver and told her to shoot him while she sat in a recliner. They also faulted her for not calling 911.
Her attorney, Roger Hunko, countered to jurors that his client was “now sure she did not shoot” her husband. The state’s crime lab expert testified she couldn’t tell if Bill Green had shot himself or not. The defense called its own expert, who said he believed it was a suicide.
Prosecutors had argued for a murder conviction. Unexpectedly, jurors opted for the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Green was handcuffed and led away from the courtroom. Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jay B. Roof later sentenced her to 60 months of prison time, well below the standard eight-plus years other defendants would face for the crime.
Life in minimum security
WCCW, or Purdy, the state’s main facility for women offenders, houses more than 700, from the best to the worst behaved. “I didn’t know what to expect here,” Green said. “It’s certainly better than the county (jail), that’s all I can say. You can go outside, see the birds and the bees.”
In her first nights there, she said she was fearful, afraid to get up and use the bathroom in the night. But once she was assigned to a pod in the prison’s minimum security section, she got more comfortable.
She now lives in a room with a woman found guilty of stealing cars and another convicted of vehicular homicide.
She watches “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” in her room with her roommates, as well as the news.
“I try to keep up with what’s going on in the world,” said Green, who followed the Oso mudslide closely and was swept up by Seahawks fever during the Super Bowl.
Green is seen by the inmates as a motherly presence, according to Peggy Root, an Aberdeen resident who served time with her in the same housing area but has since gotten out of prison.
“Everybody loves Mrs. Green and everybody knows who Mrs. Green is. Everybody,” she said. “If anybody were to try to do anything to her, they’d probably have a riot on their hands.”
Root, like many others, became protective of the 83-year-old in the 10 months they served together.
“She was like my grandmother, and I kind of attached to her. I wanted to make sure she was OK,” she said. “She’s seen a lot of things she should’ve never seen.”
Root and Green dined together at every meal. They celebrated milestones like birthdays and talked about life on the outside. A bond was formed that lasts today through phone calls and letters. Root hasn’t been allowed to visit Green but plans to be there on the day she gets out.
Though she despised being locked up, “I hated to leave that place, and leave her behind,” Root said.
She still worries for Green because of her age.
“She doesn’t want to die in there,” she said.
A positive influence
Statistics show what an anomaly Green is inside the prison walls. Less than 2 percent of all inmates in federal and state prisons around the country are older than 65, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report; of all women inmates, the number is lower — less than 1 percent of inmates.
Like other inmates, Laurie Dawson, a community volunteer who helps inmates reconnect with society upon their release, believes Green has been a positive influence inside the prison.
“She’s a light in there. She’s there and she’s helping others,” Dawson said.
Green’s become familiar with the scourge that brings many to Purdy: drug addiction. She said she’s never experimented with drugs, but she’s now familiar with prescription pill abuse, heroin’s recent surge and the meth epidemic.
“Basically most of the people in here are here for drugs,” she said. “They just keep coming and coming.”
Green has suffered from some culture shock while inside. She’s no fan of the tattoos that are prolific on many of the women and she doesn’t approve of women being intimate with each other.
“The girls being girlfriends was really shocking to her,” Lockhart said.
When she’s uncomfortable, “I just get up and walk away,” Green said.
But the inmates also make concessions for her: most are sensitive about their language around her. Those who aren’t are quickly shushed.
“The girls are very nice to me and I appreciate it,” she said.
Due for release in 2016
Like many elderly, Green has had her share of health problems. Recently she had surgery on her eye to remove some scar tissue. She’s fainted and hit her head after becoming potassium deficient.
She worries about dying inside the prison walls. She’s due to be released on May 29, 2016.
Her case is on appeal with the state’s court of appeals. Green’s attorney allowed the Kitsap Sun to interview her on condition that the appeal not be discussed, so as to not interfere with the judicial process.
For now, she clings to and cherishes her memories from the outside world — the first 79 years of her life.
“I can remember way back,” she said, “And I’m thankful for that.”