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Memories of McNeil: New Exhibit Celebrates Island’s History

February 1, 2019

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

picture of library looking toward rear of room

Library at McNeil Island Penitentiary, circa 1938. (Photo from National Archives and Records Administration)

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INFOGRAPHIC: McNeil Island Corrections Center: 136 Years of History

TACOMA – Mary Lamb spotted a pair of coyotes while waiting for a bus taking staff from the former McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) North Complex to the passenger ferry. Startled, she didn’t know what to do.

“They’d look at me and they’d look back at each other,” the Department of Corrections regional safety manager said. “We did this back and forth for a while and I waited them out.”

The coyotes eventually wandered off into the woods.

“Years later, I still get a rush thinking about how close they were,” Lamb said.

Lamb worked on McNeil Island from 1997 until the facility's closure in 2011. She moved there in 2006. For more than a century, employees of the prison and its incarcerated population experienced the island’s contrasting environments—from the rugged wilderness of the countryside, to the correctional center’s concrete architecture.

Lamb has fond memories of the island. She married her husband on the island in 2006. Prior to working at MICC, she worked as a journeyman roofer in the private sector. She used that expertise to supervise work crews and give them valuable training in the construction trades. Though it was hard work, the skills she taught those who were incarcerated helped many of them succeed after leaving prison.

She says helping inmates be successful was her favorite part of the job at MICC. Inmates often got into roofer’s unions because Lamb could provide good testimonials of their skills and work ethic. She even remembers encountering a former inmate at a gas station who stopped to tell her how she helped turn his life around. He entered prison addicted to drugs. The skills he learned help him stay sober. The former inmate also revealed to Lamb he had since gotten married and become a business owner to provide a stable future for his daughter.

“I felt like we were doing them a service,” Lamb said. “It feels good to think that you’re a good example and you’re helping people.”

The island has remained a mystery to many Washingtonians. Unlike Alcatraz Island, the nation’s other water-only accessible prison, which is now a national park, McNeil Island is closed to the public. However, the Washington State History Museum has decided to unravel some of those mysteries in a new exhibit: Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People, which runs through May 26, 2019.

“It’s close to Tacoma, yet a lot of folks don’t know about it,” explains Mary Mikel Stump, audience engagement director for the Washington State Historical Society. “The prison has a very unique story. People who lived on the island talked about the interactivity between people on the island, how it mirrors and connects the area to the rest of the country. Every site, all the buildings, reflect changes that happened to incarceration in other parts of the U.S. It spans so many different eras.”

Lamb’s eager to discover what the museum has on display.

“I think the history is great and I look forward to seeing the exhibit.”

An Abridged History

MICC predates statehood and began as a territorial jail. Officials built the original cell house in 1873. Washington did not become a state until 1889. The federal government purchased some land on the island for a federal penitentiary. The jail became a penitentiary in 1875 and remained in federal control for more than 100 years.

In 1981, the state signed a lease with the federal government to use it as a state correctional facility. MICC remained a state correctional facility until 2011, when state budget cuts combined with high operational and maintenance costs closed the facility.

MICC saw its share of infamous prisoners. Charles Manson stayed at the federal penitentiary from 1961 to 1966 on forgery charges. Robert Stroud, also known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was incarcerated at the prison for 12 years for manslaughter. It also hosted the likes of Alvin “Creepy” Carpis, a Depression-era gangster the FBI named “Public Enemy Number 1.” He stayed at the prison from 1962-1969 on bank robbery and murder convications.

Employees of MICC lived on the island while the prison was in operation. Though MICC is closed, the department still uses the former prison grounds for field training exercises for its Special Emergency Response Team (SERT). SERT is the correctional equivalent of a SWAT team and responds to high-level facility emergencies.

In 1998, the state legislature authorized the placement of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) total confinement facility for sexual predators on the island. There are 214 civilly committed sex offenders housed at the DSHS Special Commitment Center. The center is not on the former correctional facility's grounds and is located on the opposite side of the island.

Lots to Explore

The exhibit highlights the island’s history through hundreds of artifacts, including 1,800 pound wrought iron entry gates, an old pay phone, and art and furniture made by former inmates. A companion photography exhibition, Reclaimed, provides a visual survey of how nature and the climate of Puget Sound have begun to overtake the houses and buildings on the island.

Visitors can also immerse themselves into the island’s past through accounts from previous island residents, prison staff, and formerly incarcerated individuals. In partnership with the museum and with support from Humanities Washington, people may listen to a six-part podcast series, Forgotten Prison. KNKX Public Radio reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel host each episode, featuring a different part of the island’s past through interviews, conversations and oral histories.

The museum is also hosting a symposium on Saturday, March 2, 2019 from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. about life after incarceration. Author Omari Amili, who is also a 2019 Humanities Washington speaker on From Crime to the Classroom: How Education Changes Lives, will moderate a panel discussion on reentry after incarceration. The symposium is included in museum admission.

About the Exhibit:

Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, the People, runs January 26-May 26 at the Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave. in Tacoma. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. every third Tuesday.

General admission is $14 for adults, $11 for seniors over 65, youth between the ages of 6 and 17, and active duty and retired military members, and free for Historical Society members and children 5 and under. Please visit the Washington State Historical Society website for information on special rates and discounts.