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McNeil Island History

old photo of the correctionl facility in the year 1890

McNeil Island 1890

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NOTICE: There are no public tours offered of McNeil Island.

In 1841, McNeil Island, an island west of Steilacoom, Wash. and north of Anderson Island, was named after William Henry McNeill, captain of the Hudson Bay Company steamers 'Beaver,' 'Llama,' and 'Una.' A map recording error accounts for the difference in spelling, which was never corrected. In 1853, Ezra Meeker settled on McNeil Island and sold the property in 1862. Meeker’s homestead house was located in the area of the main correctional facility yard.

1875-1976: Federal Penitentiary

On January 22, 1867, Congress authorized the establishment of a territorial jail in the Washington Territory. On September 17, 1870, the Federal Government purchased 27.27 acres on McNeil Island for a federal prison, which officially opened in 1875. These 27 acres are the site of the main penitentiary complex.

The original McNeil Island cellhouse was built in 1873. In November 1874, the penitentiary was placed under the direction of the United States Marshal. Eight U.S. Marshals served in Washington Territory prior to statehood, and it was during Charles Hopkins’ tenure that the McNeil Island territorial prison opened on May 28, 1875. By the end of that year, the total prison population was nine.

In 1889, Washington was admitted to the Union. The first warden at the federal McNeil Island Penitentiary was Gilbert L. Palmer in 1893. The total custodial force consisted of seven guards.

In 1904, Attorney General Philander C. Knox was placed in full charge of the jail and McNeil Island was immediately declared an official United States prison. In 1927, an additional 67 acres were purchased for a prison farm to produce vegetables and fruit. Due to the need for water, another 1,618.33 acres were purchased in 1931. This brought the total prison acreage to 2,107.3, just less than half the island's 4,445 acres.

In 1934, the federal farm camp (North Complex) was completed. By 1947, the population was 320 inmates. At one time, the island provided for itself by raising vegetables, fruit, pork, beef, and milk. The final land transaction in 1940 involved 2,303.1 acres. The entire island, roughly seven square miles, was now under federal control. In 1944, Butterworth Lake was formed. In 1948, construction began on the community center and school to provide education for the children residing in the 52 homes on the island. School was held for the first time in 1952-53.

Well-known inmates that served at least part of their sentence in the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary were Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud from 1909 to 1912 for manslaughter, and Charles Manson from 1961 to 1966 for federal check forgery.

Due to high operational and maintenance costs and needed renovations, in 1976, the Federal Bureau of Prisons declared as “obsolete” the aging federal penitentiary on McNeil Island and decided to begin shutting it down. Washington’s need for additional prison space prompted state officials to explore the possibility of acquiring the prison to house state prisoners.

1981-2011: State Correctional Facility

In 1981, the state signed a lease with the federal government granting the state use of the penitentiary. In April 1981, the Washington Department of Corrections began moving inmates into the newly renamed McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC). Inmates were put to work fixing and improving the facility, which had not been maintained during the later years of federal operation. In 1984, the seven square mile island was officially deeded to the state of Washington.

In 1990, the Legislature appropriated $392 million to expand MICC, and by 1993, the Department of Corrections had built five new medium-security residential units, each housing 256 inmates, and a sixth segregation unit with 129 single cells. The original cellblock was demolished and replaced in 1994 with an inmate services building housing a hospital, educational center, recreation room, hobby shop, music room, and gymnasium.

In 1993 the balance of the island, 3,119 acres, was deeded to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) for continuing use as a wildlife refuge. Wildlife agents are generally on the island once a week to monitor wildlife. Their boats also occasionally patrol the beaches. The land deeded for DOC use is in 24 separate parcels. Some parcels are about 100 acres, and some only two or three acres. For example, DOC land includes acreage for the minimum and medium facility complexes, but almost none of the beaches or Butterworth Lake. DFW is responsible for management of all island wildlife. A new deed to McNeil was issued in 1996, from the Department of Justice. All other original deed covenants continued, i.e., maintaining the federal graveyard, public access limitations, protection of wildlife, etc.

In April 2011, the oldest prison facility in the Northwest and final island-based prison in the nation was officially closed after 136 years.

2013-Current: Operations & Maintenance

The Department of Corrections’ Industries program, per the state’s 2013 budget bill, remains responsible for marine operations, wastewater treatment, water treatment, road maintenance, and other general island maintenance for the state to remain in compliance with the federal deed to McNeil Island. Site specific maintenance operations for the Department of Social and Health Services' Special Commitment Center is excluded.

1998-Current: Special Commitment Center

In 1998, the state legislature authorized the placement of the state’s Special Commitment Center, a total confinement facility for sexual predators, on McNeil Island. The center, operated under the control and direction of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), is a place where chronic and violent sex offenders can be civilly committed, per a court’s determination and after the end of their prison sentence. The DSHS remains responsible for facility maintenance and capital repairs of the Special Commitment Center.

Source: HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "McNeil Island Corrections Center, 1981-Present" by Daryl C. McClary (www.historylink.org).