A Rare Look at the McNeil Island Prison

A Rare Look at the McNeil Island Prison

January 26, 2019 2 By Sierra Hartman

Less than three miles from the beaches of Chambers Bay lies one of the most unfamiliar and inaccessible places in all of Washington State. This is the Alcatraz of the Puget Sound.

Unless you were a prisoner, a guard, or a family member of either, it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen the island up close. Over the last year, the Washington State History Museum and KNKX Public Radio made several visits to the island in order to share its little known stories.

Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People brings together a collection of stories and artifacts from the prison’s 143 year history. As with much of history, it was written by those in positions of power. The exhibit takes this into account and invites people to consider the stories and voices of those who are not represented.

The McNeil Island Corrections Center officially opened in 1875 but had previously been used as a territorial prison while the rest of the island was inhabited by homesteaders. At various times throughout its history it held draft resistors and conscientious objectors from all of America’s wars, including 85 Japanese citizens who resisted the draft to protest their wartime confinement. It was also used multiple times as an immigrant detention center from the 1880s through the 1980s.

The prison was inhabited by Robert Stroud (aka Birdman of Alcatraz), Frederick Peters, who impersonated Theodore Roosevelt and other celebrities in the early 1900s, Roy Gardner, a train robber who escaped three times before being sent to Alcatraz, several local bootleggers and gangsters, and Charles Manson in the early 1960s.

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Artifacts in the exhibition range from the 2,000 pound wrought iron entry gate to a delicate violin made in secret by a prisoner from scavenged bits of wood. Different eras of the prison are separated by walls. The transitional spaces between each section are constructed according to the cell size of that era.

The last section is occupied by the photography exhibition Reclaimed. These photos document the current state of the island and its slow but steady return to nature. The narrated stories of former inmates and guards are amazing, the artifacts are impossible to forget, and the look into what life was like for the kids growing up on the island is unlike anything you’ll ever hear.

To get the entire story be sure to listen to the accompanying six-part KNKX podcast, Forgotten Prison.

The exhibition runs until May 26th. The museum will also host a symposium on March 2nd that discusses the challenges and opportunities of re-entry to society after incarceration. There will be a facilitated tour of the exhibit following the discussion.

The prison on McNeil Island officially closed in 2011. The island is now home to the Special Commitment Center for “sexually violent predators.” As of 2017, there were 268 residents at the facility. The island and its abandoned neighborhoods are also occasionally used for training by soldiers and airmen stationed at JBLM.

Historic photos courtesy of Washington State Historical Society and Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room.