The cellblocks lay empty. The guard towers are long vacant. Blackberry bushes and prairie grass invade the prison yard where inmates once walked as they saw the sights of freedom on the other side of the barbed wire fences that held them there.
The last inmates left what was then the McNeil Island Correctional Center, just offshore of Steilacoom, when the state prison closed in 2011. Thus ended more than a century of the island’s use as a prison. That tenure included infamous residents, waves of prison reforms and the distinction as the only prison in America to serve as a territorial, federal and state detention center. It was also the sole prison in the nation to only be accessible by water, a fact that brought high operational costs that ultimately led to its closure.
The 4,200-acre island’s storied history is being told in a new exhibit at the Washington State History Museum, “Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People,” and a companion podcast that was developed through a partnership with Tacoma’s 88.5 FM KNKX Public Radio.
The exhibition opened last Saturday and displays relics, artifacts and narratives that help tell the island’s history through accounts from inmates, prison staff and their families who lived on the island as a unique “company town,” both before and after the first inmates arrived.
The exhibits further look at McNeil’s prison operation in the larger context of state and national events, particularly regarding the ebbs and flows of prison reform efforts.
“McNeil was first a territorial prison, then a federal penitentiary, then a state facility,” said Historical Society’s Director of Audience Engagement Mary Mikel Stump. “Each of those phases is explored in its own section of the exhibition. Visitors will sense the feeling of containment in the transition spaces between each exhibit section, because the transitions are scaled to the prison cells of each era.”
Much less famous than its sibling prison on Alcatraz Island off the coast of San Francisco, McNeil not only served as a test-bed of reform-minded wardens throughout its history, it also housed its fair share of infamous inmates, including Charles Manson, who served time on the island from 1961 to 1966 for forgery and actually learned how to play the guitar from another notable inmate, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who was a head of the Depression-era Barker-Karpis Gang and was the FBI’s “Public Enemy #1” when he was arrested. Robert Stroud, best known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” also spent time on the island after killing a man for short-changing a prostitute Stroud was pimping out at the time.
Notable artifacts in the exhibit includes the 1,800-pound wrought iron entry gates that were designed by noted architect George Gove, who also designed Lincoln High School and Mount Rainier’s Paradise Inn. Other artifacts include letters between a conscientious objector and his family while he was being held on the island during World War II and a violin an inmate built from scrap wood and smuggled plans.
Because the prison was on an island, it was largely self sufficient, with its own dairy and vegetable patches to provide food for the inmates as well as workshops to build furniture and maintain its fleet of inmate ferries that shuttled prisoners and staff to and from the island.
Alongside the exhibit and its series of talks by curators and prison reformists during the run of the exhibit, KNKX reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel are releasing a six-part podcast, “Forgotten Prison,” that examines the island’s history through interviews, conversations, and oral histories.
“We spent a year reporting with the museum for the podcast, and the more I learned about McNeil Island, the more I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about this place,” Alicea said. “The remarkable history of this prison really pushes you to think deeply about how and why we lock people up.”
A companion photography exhibition, “Reclaimed,” provides a visual survey of how nature and the climate of Puget Sound have begun to overtake the island’s prison facilities during the seven years since the prison closed.
The island is closed to the public and houses the Department of Social and Health Services’ Special Commitment Center. The secured facility treats sexual predators who have served their sentences following convictions of sexual crimes but civilly committed to treatment after being deemed likely to recommit crimes.
In addition to federal prisoners, McNeil held conscientious objectors from World War I through the Vietnam War.
During World War II, the prison held citizens of Japanese ancestry who had been incarcerated in American concentration camps and refused to fight in the war.
The prison was used multiple times as an immigrant detention center, the most recent during the Mariel boat lift from Cuba in 1980. Today, the island is the site of the Special Commitment Center for violent sexual predators.
The museum is hosting a conversation about life after incarceration at a symposium on Saturday, March 2, from 1:30-3:30 p.m. The conversation will provide an opportunity to learn about the challenges and opportunities of re-entry after incarceration and moderated by Omari Amili, author, community leader, and a speaker presenting “From Crime to the Classroom: How Education Changes Lives.”
“Reclaimed,” the photographic survey of how nature is overtaking the island’s prison facilities, and “Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People” run through May 26.
KNKX’s podcast, “Forgotten Prison,” a six-part series about the island, is downloadable for free and developed with financial support from Humanities Washington.
More information about the exhibit and the podcast can be found at WashingtonHistory.org/Mcneil and Forgottenprison.org.