McNeil Island is an island in the northwest United States in south Puget Sound, located southwest of Tacoma, Washington. With a land area of 6.6319 square miles (17.177 km2), it lies just north of Anderson Island; Fox Island is to the north, across Carr Inlet, and to the west, 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; it was a federal penitentiary for over a century, from 1875 to 1981. It was turned over to the Washington State Department of Corrections and became the "McNeil Island Corrections Center," until it closed in 2011. It was the last remaining island prison in the country to be accessible only by air and sea.[a]
In November 2010, the state announced closure plans for 2011, saving $14 million. A detention center for violent sexual offenders remains on the island.
The McNeil Island Historical Society was chartered in 2010 shortly after the closing of the prison for the purpose of educating the public about, and preserving, the rich history of McNeil 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 U.S. government bought land on McNeil Island in 1870 and opened a federal penitentiary there in 1875. The federal government accumulated parcels of land adjacent to the penitentiary; by 1937, it 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 transferred to McNeil Island in 1962, from Alcatraz as a result of its impending closure, to complete his sentence. Karpis, who was labeled the FBI's Public Enemy #1 at the time of his capture in 1936, was the point man for the Barker–Karpis gang that committed kidnappings and numerous bank robberies while operating throughout the Midwest in the early 1930s. Northwest bootlegger Roy Olmstead was also an inmate for four years until his release on May 12, 1931.
The state of Washington acquired the penitentiary from the federal government in 1981. It was called McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) until 2011, when it became the Special Commitment Center for violent sexual criminals.
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.
While the prison was operational, the island had a population well over a thousand residents (1,516 as of the 2000 census) The majority of which were incarcerated in MICC prison. There were about 40 families and about 100 people who lived on the island, with at least one family member employed at MICC. The homes were subsidized by the DOC at a greatly reduced rent.
A small passenger-only ferry for registered visitors, departing Steilacoom Dock every two hours. The state also supplies emergency speed-boat services for the civilly committed.
In 1934, McNeil Island was linked by ferry service with Steilacoom, Anderson Island and Longbranch, Washington. 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.
- "McNeil Island". Lewiston Morning Tribune. (Idaho). (Los Angeles Times). October 13, 1979. p. 2A.
- 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.
- "McNeil Island Historical Society". McNeil Island Historical Society. Archived from the original on 2012-04-25.
- 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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