Unlike many of its neighbors in the South Sound, McNeil largely has been shrouded in mystery and surrounded by rumor and speculation. And it is not as if one could hop a ferry and enjoy a bike ride across the island on a sunny Pacific Northwest afternoon.
In fact, the only way to gain access is to obtain permission from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. While this sounds simple, it requires an application and extensive vetting, and a request might still ultimately result in a denial.
So, why all the red tape? It is because from 1875 until 2011, McNeil was home to an island penitentiary, and today, is host to the state’s Special Commitment Center. While not a prison, the center does provide “specialized mental health treatment for civilly committed sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences.”
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 there. Later, an early settler by the name of James Eamon Smith donated 27.27 acres of land on which to build a penitentiary for the Washington Territory.
By 1875, there was a three-tiered, 48-cell penitentiary, so primitive that it had no heating, cooling, water, or facilities for food preparation. Around that same time, numerous families had begun to establish homes and small farms on the land, and soon a public school and a general store were added.
“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, which last year hosted an exhibit about McNeil Island. “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.”
Later, once the prison had been under control of the federal government for several decades, the cost of hosting a business, like a prison, on an island proved too great. 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 it up to federal standards. 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 arduous shutting-down process began. However, the state soon swooped in and took control of the prison due to overcrowding in its existing penitentiaries, making many of the necessary improvements and operating 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 its balance sheet.
Today, there are 214 residents living on McNeil, all civilly committed former prison inmates residing at the Special Commitment Center. However, according to a Criminal Justice Planning Services report, the state is still experiencing pains in regard to the island. The report estimated the operational cost of the center to be $158,299 per resident.
The report also lists several expenditures unique to an island location, such as labor for marine maintenance, valued at $80,000 per year, and the operation of marine services — such as ferries, barges, and tugs — which the report said is “by far the most expensive component.”
Outside the center, however, the rest of the buildings stand still and stoic. The prison, shuttered; the homes, abandoned; the bowling alleys and the school, hollow and dilapidated.
Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society, Springer Family Collection, C2014.165.1