Coordinates: McNeil Island is an island in western Puget Sound, located just west of Steilacoom, Washington, with a land area of 17.177 km² (6.6319 sq mi). It lies just north of Anderson Island. Fox Island is to the north, across Carr Inlet. To the west McNeil Island is separated from Key Peninsula by Pitt Passage. The Washington mainland lies to the east, across the south basin of Puget Sound. The island has been owned by the government for most of its history and has been home to the United States Federal Penitentiary from 1875 until turned over to Washington State Department of Corrections in 1981 and was renamed as the "McNeil Island Corrections Center" until 2011, when it was closed. Prior to its closing on April 1, 2011, it was the last remaining island prison in the country to be accessible only by air and sea.
In November 2010, the Washington State Department of Corrections announced its plans to close the penitentiary by 2011, thereby saving $14 million in the process. A detention center for violent sexual offenders is to remain on the island.
It was named in 1841 by Charles Wilkes during the United States Exploring Expedition in honor of Captain William Henry McNeill of the Hudson's Bay Company. McNeill was at Fort Nisqually in 1841 and greeted Wilkes upon arrival in southern Puget Sound.
The Robert A. Inskip expedition of 1846 named the island Duntze, after Captain John A. Duntze of the Royal Navy. In 1847, during the British map reorganization project, Henry Kellett restored the earlier name McNeil. A recording error accounts for the error in spelling, which was never corrected.
The United States government bought land on McNeil Island in 1870 and opened a federal penitentiary there in 1875. By 1937 the federal government, which had been accumulating parcels of land adjacent to the penitentiary, had purchased all the land on the island and compelled its last residents to leave. The federal penitentiary's most famous inmates were probably Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz," who was held there from 1909 to 1912; Charles Manson, who before inspiring Helter Skelter in killing Sharon Tate and others in 1969, was an inmate from 1961 to 1966 for trying to cash a forged government check; and Alvin Karpis, who was an inmate until 1971 for operating as point man for Ma Barker's gang in the 1930s. Karpis was the only person arrested by J. Edgar Hoover, and was released soon after Hoover died. Pacific Northwest bootlegger Roy Olmstead was an inmate for four years before his release May 12, 1931.
Washington state took over the penitentiary from the federal government in 1981. It is now called McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC).
McNeil Island Cemetery and Prison
Land for the McNeil Island Cemetery was donated by island pioneers, Eric Nyberg and his wife Martha. The first of many burials was in October 1905. When the island's residents were forced to leave in 1936, the cemetery was closed; all remains were exhumed and reburied in cemeteries on the mainland.
At the time of its closing, McNeil was the only prison left in North America that was accessible only by boat or air. It remains the site of the state's primary Special Commitment Center (SCC), where sexually violent predators are indefinitely committed for treatment after completing their standard prison sentences. In addition to the main building that held the majority of inmates, an annex on the opposite side of the island housed low-risk inmates, and those who were scheduled for release. During the 1800s, it was once a military encampment as well as a military prison for a short time. At one point, the prison was almost self-sustaining in terms of agricultural products, including its dairy farm; all these elements were manned and operated by the inmates.
McNeil was long threatened with closing due to the high cost of operating the prison; an announcement in late 2010 said the prison would close in 2011. The prison's remaining 500 low-risk inmates were integrated into other state prisons. The prison officially closed on April 1, 2011.
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The island had a population of 1,516 residents as of the 2000 census. The majority of the residents were incarcerated in MICC prison while several hundred remain civilly committed at the SCC. There were about 40 families and about 100 people who lived on the island. The non-incarcerated families had at least one family member employed at MICC, and most often those employees were members of the special response team, warden, and sometimes assistant warden. The homes were subsidized by the DOC at a greatly reduced rent. There was no commerce nor any stores on the island and access to the island was strictly controlled by the Department of Corrections.
In 1934, McNeil Island was linked by ferry service with Steilacoom, Anderson Island and Longbranch, Washington. The ferry continues in operation, but no longer connects to McNeil Island or Longbranch. Separate federal or state-owned ferries under the prison administration connected McNeil Island with Steilacoom. The Washington State Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS) continues to operate passenger ferry and barge service to McNeil Island to service DSHS' Special Commitment Center.
In popular culture
- In the 1995 Michael Mann movie Heat, Robert De Niro's character is revealed to have spent time as a prisoner at McNeil Island.
- In the movie Three Fugitives, Nick Nolte's character (Lucas) is released from McNeil Island prison at the beginning of the film.
- In the ninth episode of the first season of the podcast Tanis, the editor talks about Charles Manson's trip to the prison.
- Oppman, Patrick (2011-04-01). "Last island prison in U.S. closes". CNN. CNN.com. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- Sullivan, Jennifer; Clarridge, Christine "McNeil Island prison to close next year" Seattle Times 20 Nov. 2010. Retrieved 20 Nov. 2010.
- Rikers Island in New York City is a jail (short-term holding facility run by the city) and not a prison (long-term holding facility run by the state).
- "McNeil Island Historical Society". McNeil Island Historical Society.
- Phillips, James W. (1971). Washington State Place Names. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-95158-3.
- "Unusual names, odd spellings found in Washington". The Spokesman-Review. Dec 24, 1977. pp. A12. Retrieved 20 May 2015.
- Cammon, Betsey Johnson, Island Memoir: A Personal History of Anderson and McNeil Islands, Anderson Island: Anderson Island Historical Society, 1987, pp 184-185, 217.
- Galentine, Elizabeth, and Anderson Island Historical Society, Anderson Island, Arcadia Publishing (2006) ISBN 0-7385-4854-5
- Photographs of McNeil Island available through Online Public Access, National Archives and Records Administration
- McNeil Island: Census Tract 727, Pierce County, Washington United States Census Bureau
- "McNeil Island Corrections Center". Archived from the original on August 27, 2010.
- McNeil Island Wildlife Area
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