The Last Island Prison: McNeil Island, Washington

McNeil Island Corrections Center

“Paradise is an island. So is hell,” said German author Judith Schalansky in the introduction to Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will. Today we begin a new series focusing on federally owned islands—most of which, we expect, will fall somewhere between those two extremes. For many of its residents, however, the island we profile today probably was a sort of hell—albeit one with fantastic views and beaches.

McNeil Island is set in Puget Sound, just 2.8 miles west of Steilacoom, Washington, the nearest town. The 4,445-acre island is 2.25 miles wide and three miles long. It was named after Captain William Henry McNeill (yes, different spelling) of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1841. The U.S. government began buying land on the island in 1870 and opened a penitentiary there in 1875; by 1937, it owned the entire island. Among the McNeil Island Corrections Center’s most famous inmates were Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who was incarcerated there from 1909 to 1912, and Charles Manson, who served time there from 1961 to 1966 for trying to cash a forged government check. At one time, the facility housed 1,300 prisoners. It focused more on rehabilitation than punishment and was the last prison in America located on a small, remote island.

In 1981, having decided it no longer made fiscal sense to maintain the island as a federal prison, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons allowed the state to take over the property. The state, believing it could make the prison work financially, invested more than $100 million in infrastructure improvements and new construction—including five medium-security residential units, a segregation unit, and an inmate services building—before closing the prison for good on April 1, 2011.

Last month (July 2012), the Washington State Office of Financial Management launched a $100,000 study to help determine what should be done with the island. But any redevelopment efforts will be complicated by the issue of ownership. In 1984, the federal government deeded 3,119 acres (about 70%) of the island to what is now the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and 1,326 acres (about 30%) to the Department of General Administration for operation of prison facilities by the Department of Corrections. The deeds required the land to be used only for wildlife conservation and correctional purposes, respectively.

In 2001, GSA agreed to modify the deed to 87 acres in the middle of the island so that the state could use it as a holding facility for civilly committed violent sexual offenders. The Special Commitment Center—which opened in 2004 and is operated by the state Department of Social and Health Services (which also is maintaining the old prison properties)—is not a prison, and is not part of the state’s correctional system. It continues to house more than 300 residents—which puts the state out of compliance with the terms of the federal deed, meaning that all or part of the island could revert back to the federal government. If that happens, GSA can expect to face competing claims from local Native American tribes as well as from the descendents of former homesteaders, who say their families’ property was confiscated illegally back in the late 1800s.

What will happen next is unclear. The study currently underway will provide no conclusions about what should happen on the island; rather, its aim is to gather facts, sort through all of the complicating issues, and present the state with permissible options, which may include demolishing the prison compound buildings or transforming them into a museum or some other sort of tourist attraction. Any changes in use will have to be approved by GSA.

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