Stepping into the Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People exhibit at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma is likely nothing akin to the experience prisoners encountered when they first stepped their shackled feet onto the landing dock at McNeil Island Penitentiary.
However, the sounds of lapping water, calling birds, and voices of actual McNeil prisoners that greet patrons as they stroll through the first room of the exhibit do help paint a vivid mental image of what it might have been like.
“Arrival on the island was definitely an experience…,” said the disembodied voice of a person incarcerated at McNeil from 1999 to 2000. His story and others like it are played through a hidden speaker to help patrons appreciate the journey to the island prison.
“It’s not a ferry ride when you’re going there,” the voice continues. “It’s a barge… you have your wrists shackled to your waistband and your ankles shackled together. They might even have been short on shackles that day. So, I think I was shackled to someone else because I remember saying, ‘Can you swim?’”
A Territorial, Federal, and State Prison
Located in South Puget Sound between Anderson Island and Fox Island near Steilacoom, McNeil Island is a less-than-7-square-mile spit of land originally home to members of various Native American tribes. In 1853, Oregon Trail pioneer Ezra Meeker and his brother Oliver were the first pioneers to stake a claim on the island.
While the brothers didn’t stay on the island long, the land was soon homesteaded by a few early settlers like James Eamon Smith who, in 1870, donated 27.27 acres of land with which to build a penitentiary for the Washington Territory.
“Believe it or not, in the territorial era, prisons were a desirable thing — you wanted a prison in your community,” said Gwen Whiting, lead curator at Washington State History Museum, who noted that many other cities like Vancouver and Port Townsend originally lobbied to play host to the prison. “That has changed now, but back then people saw prisons as a source of jobs; it would bring in other businesses to support the prison.”
Construction began two years later and, by 1875, the Washington Territory had a brand new three-tiered, 48-cell penitentiary. Two prisoners were housed in each unfurnished 6-by 8-foot cell with ceilings as low as 7 feet, 5 inches. At the time of opening, there was no infrastructure in place for heating, cooling, water, or food preparation.
During the 136 years that the prison on McNeil Island was in operation, it went through many upgrades and changes as well as distinct generations, beginning with the territorial era of its founding.
In the mid-1880s, numerous families had begun to establish homes and small farms on the land, and soon a public school and a general store also were added.
Then, when Washington became the 42nd state in 1889, the prison was offered to the state government. The state declined, and two years later The Three Prisons Act of 1891 was enacted, authorizing three prisons to house inmates convicted of federal crimes. This included Leavenworth in Kansas, Atlanta in Georgia, and McNeil Island, thus ushering in the federal era, which lasted more than 80 years.
“Toward the end of the federal era, in the ’70s, the buildings began to deteriorate,” said WSHM’s Whiting. “The question began to pop up, ‘Is this a humane environment to live in?’”
As it happens, the answer was no. That’s why, in 1976, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons decided to shutter McNeil Island Penitentiary rather than invest an estimated $14 million to bring the prison up to the federal standards of the time. Moreover, the expense of transporting personnel and supplies via boat was much costlier than the support needed by other federal facilities on the mainland.
By 1979, the federal government had begun the process of shutting McNeil down. “However, at the same time, the state was experiencing overcrowding in prisons,” said Whiting. “It was decided that the logical thing to do was for the state to request transfer of the prison to become a state correctional center.”
The state government made many of the necessary improvements and operated McNeil as a state correctional center from the 1980s until 2011, when, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, it was determined that the state would save more than $8 million per year if it no longer had the island prison on the books.
Cold Closure, Rumors, and a Look Back
The state elected to perform a cold closure on McNeil, which meant — other than clearing the sewers and cutting the heat and electricity — the facility on McNeil was essentially abandoned and left to allow nature to reclaim it.
Today, the Department of Social and Health Services operates a Special Commitment Center on the island. While not a prison, the center does provide “specialized mental health treatment for civilly committed sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences.”
The existence of such a facility is just one of the many rumors about McNeil Island that abound, as not much has been publicized about the island. In fact, many native Tacomans didn’t even know McNeil Island existed save for a few stories they’ve heard about a supposed island prison somewhere out in the waters of the Puget Sound.
As a longtime resident of Washington, Mary Mikel Stump, audience engagement director for WSHM, said she knew of its existence, but little else. And what’s more, she knew most people didn’t have any knowledge of it.
“The people I talked to, even today, have no idea. The people in Tacoma don’t know there was a prison there,” Stump said, citing its enigmatic presence in Tacoma as one of the reasons the WSHM exhibit was so critical.
To do this, the WSHM teamed up with local public radio station KNKX to produce a new podcast entitled Forgotten Prison. Hosted by Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel, the six-episode Forgotten Prison podcast “tells the stories of inmates, guards, and children who grew up on the island.”
One of the podcast’s first talking points, for instance, was a particularly hilarious story of an escapee known simply as Taylor. This escape during the territorial era involved a prison guard rowing out to Point Defiance in search of Taylor. He found his wayward charge on the beach beside a rowboat, and a slow-speed rowboat race ensued before the escapee was eventually apprehended and made to row back to the island.
Other segments include talk of Charles Manson, who was once incarcerated there; stories from children who had grown up on the island; and comparisons to that other, slightly more famous, island prison. All six episodes of Forgotten Prison can be found online at forgottenprison.org.
The Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People exhibition at WSHM runs through May 29.