McNeil Island

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The prison in circa 1890.

Coordinates: 47°12′27″N 122°40′56″W / 47.2074°N 122.6823°W / 47.2074; -122.6823 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 McNeil Island Corrections Center from 1875 until 2011.[1] Prior to its closing on April 1, 2011, it was the last remaining island prison in the country.[1][2][3]

In November 2010, the Washington State Department of Corrections announced its plans to close the penitentiary by 2011 and saving $14 million in the process. A detention center for violent sexual offenders is to remain on the island.[2]

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.[4]



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.[5]

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 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.

Washington state took over the penitentiary from the federal government in 1981. It is now called McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC). Since Washington was not a state when the prison was formed, it has been a territorial, federal, and state prison.

McNeil Island Cemetery and Prison

Land for the McNeil Island Cemetery was donated by island pioneers, Eric Nyberg and his wife, Martha, and the first of many burials was in October 1905. When the island's residents were forced to leave in 1936, the cemetery was closed and all remains were exhumed and reburied in cemeteries on the mainland.[6]

At the time of its closing, it was the only prison left in North America that was only accessible by boat or air. It was 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. Not only is there a main building that held the majority of inmates, but on the other side of the island, there is an annex which housed low risk inmates, and those who were scheduled for release. It was once a military encampment as well as a military prison for a short time during the 1800s. At one point, the prison was almost self-sustaining in the way of agriculture/farm and as a dairy farm, that was manned and operated by the inmates.

Long threatened with closing due to the high cost of operating the prison, it was made official in late 2010 to close the prison by 2011. The prison's remaining 500 low-risk inmates will be integrated into other state prisons.[2] The prison officially closed on April 1, 2011.[1]


The island had a population of 1,516 residents as of the 2000 census.[citation needed] The majority of the residents are incarcerated in MICC prison while several hundred are civilly committed to SCC. There are about 40 families and about 100 people that live on the island. The non-incarcerated families have at least one family member employed at MICC, most often those employees are members of the special response team, warden, and sometimes assistant warden. The homes are subsidised by the DOC at a greatly reduced rent. There is no commerce or stores on the island and access to the island is strictly controlled by the Department of Corrections.[citation needed]


In 1934, McNeil Island was linked by ferry service with Steilacoom, Anderson Island and Longbranch, Washington.[7] 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.


  1. ^ a b c Oppman, Patrick (2011-04-01). "Last island prison in U.S. closes". CNN. Retrieved 2011-04-01. 
  2. ^ a b c Sullivan, Jennifer; Clarridge, Christine "McNeil Island prison to close next year" Seattle Times 20 Nov. 2010. Retrieved 20 Nov. 2010.
  3. ^ 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).
  4. ^ "McNeil Island Historical Society". McNeil Island Historical Society. 
  5. ^ Phillips, James W. (1971). Washington State Place Names. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-95158-3. 
  6. ^ Cammon, Betsey Johnson, Island Memoir: A Personal History of Anderson and McNeil Islands, Anderson Island: Anderson Island Historical Society, 1987, pp 184-185, 217.
  7. ^ Galentine, Elizabeth, and Anderson Island Historical Society, Anderson Island, Arcadia Publishing (2006) ISBN 0-7385-4854-5

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