McNeil Island has been home to a prison since 1875, when it was opened as a territorial prison 14 years before Washington became a state. On April 1, the McNeil Island Corrections Complex will be closed because of state budget cuts.
MCNEIL ISLAND, Pierce County — When the prison that eventually would become McNeil Island Corrections Center opened more than 135 years ago, a tight-knit community of fishermen and loggers, brothel owners and bootleggers, and prison employees and their children developed around it.
As in any small town, everybody knew their neighbors’ business — even if their neighbors were serving 15 to life.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up,” recalls Tim Taylor, 60, of Longbranch, Pierce County.
The son of a corrections officer and a prison switchboard operator, Taylor spent his youth tramping through the island’s woods and swimming in the local reservoir. It was a lazy, easy life occasionally marred by sirens alerting residents that an inmate had escaped.
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“The sirens went off, and you knew you had to go in your house and lock the doors,” said Nancy Armstrong, who moved to the island in 1981 to work as a registered nurse at the prison.
For children like Taylor, interaction with the prison’s inmates was more by design than desperation.
In the 1960s, the job of driving prison employees’ children to the island’s schoolhouse fell to a famed Depression-era gangster, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, a onetime member of the notorious Barker gang. Taylor recalls that Karpis, who served time on McNeil Island and once was dubbed a “Public Enemy” by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, was a cheerful man, a demeanor likely influenced by the armed guard seated inches from him.
In fact, inmates worked on ferries that served the island, were part of road crews and labored on island farms.
These days, the daily ferries carrying inmates, visitors and corrections staff have mostly been replaced by large barges as workers strip the sprawling prison of anything salvageable. On April 1, McNeil Island, which at its peak was home to 1,700 inmates and has housed the likes of Charles Manson; Robert Stroud, better known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”; and Frank Colacurcio Sr., will be shuttered for good.
Location has a price
Operating an island prison always has been a costly proposition because of the logistics involved in transporting everything by water.
In the 1960s, when McNeil Island was a federal penitentiary, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons shut down Alcatraz, the country’s most famous island prison, because of the cost to operate the crumbling facility. That same decade, a bridge was built to allow traffic to another famous island lockup, Rikers Island, located in New York’s East River.
The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) took over McNeil Island in 1981, five years after it was closed by the Bureau of Prisons. McNeil Island remains — if only for a few weeks — the only U.S. prison accessible only by boat or air.
The closure will save the state an estimated $8.6 million per year at a time when the DOC is forced to make extensive cuts, department spokesman Chad Lewis said. McNeil Island long has been the state’s most expensive prison, due to its age and reliance on boats for transportation. DOC spends roughly $1,200 more per inmate each year to house inmates at McNeil Island than at other state prisons, Lewis said.
Most inmates and corrections staff already have been transferred to other facilities. A skeleton staff and a handful of inmates remain at the prison in its final days.
“It’s sad that we have to do it,” said DOC Secretary Eldon Vail, superintendent of McNeil Island from 1992 to 1994. “It was a good location for a prison; you had a moat and additional protection from folks getting out and getting free.”
The prison, steps from Puget Sound and within sight of the ornate waterfront homes in Steilacoom, will be mothballed. The state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) will continue running the Special Commitment Center for civilly committed sexually violent predators, on the other end of the island.
A territorial prison
McNeil Island opened as a territorial prison in 1875, 14 years before Washington became a state. The prison held nine inmates by the end of that first year, according to DOC.
The federal government took over the facility in 1904, and the entire 7-square-mile island became federal property as well 40 years later.
Taylor said he attended kindergarten through fifth grade with nearly three dozen other children at the island’s country school.
He said the community in the 1960s included a movie theater, a medical clinic, gas station, hamburger joint, grocery and church. More than 50 modest homes were built for prison employees and their families.
During the facility’s time as a federal lockup, a who’s who of criminals served time there.
Stroud, whose cinematic fame as the “The Birdman of Alcatraz” belied his violent history, was held there from 1909-12.
Karpis said that as an inmate in the 1960s, he befriended a young Charles Manson, who served time from 1961-66 for trying to cash a forged government check. Karpis taught guitar to Manson, according to written accounts of Karpis’ life.
Mickey Cohen, a Los Angeles racketeer and onetime cohort of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, also was incarcerated at the prison, as was Colacurcio, the late Seattle strip-club owner and organized-crime figure.
Solution for state
Desperate for inmate bed space, the state began leasing the prison from the federal government in 1981. The move was controversial, opposed by former Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, who had a home on nearby Fox Island, and by residents of Steilacoom. The prison officially was deeded to the state in 1984, according to DOC.
Dick Morgan, a longtime DOC employee brought out of retirement to supervise McNeil Island’s closure, said the state started using the island prison because no community seemed to want a new prison.
“DOC was between a rock and a hard place. We were not welcome anywhere. McNeil Island, as the feds were abandoning it, became an opportunity to resolve that crisis,” Morgan said. “Today, I don’t think anyone would build a prison on an island because of the costs involved.”
Lori Scamahorn, a former McNeil Island employee now working at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, recalls that the transition was slow. The new state prison lacked office furniture, she said, so she had to perform her human-resources job with a typewriter propped on an overturned trash can.
Scamahorn met her future husband, Al, on the island.
Al Scamahorn, now an alfalfa farmer in Walla Walla, recalls being “scared to death” the first day he walked into the McNeil Island Corrections Center.
He said he supervised 550 inmates in a five-tier cell tower. The stacked towers, a remanent from the federal prison days, eventually were replaced with easier-to-supervise living units.
“It was like walking under a 747,” said Scamahorn, now 63. “It was just huge. I wasn’t prepared for the size.”
After arriving on the island in the early 1980s, Scamahorn and a crew of officers once were patrolling the island when they heard screams for help. They found two escaped inmates who had tried to flee the island in winter on a raft made from a plywood prison sign and driftwood.
The inmates suffered hypothermia, and a third had slipped off the raft and drowned.
Armstrong, the prison nurse, said initially she was unsure about moving her family from Shelton to the rural island.
“All of us who first moved here were like pioneers,” said Armstrong.
She lived there from the day the prison opened as a state facility in 1981 until January, when she moved to the Kitsap Peninsula. She and her late husband raised two daughters on the island.
“It was the right move. It was such a pristine island,” said Armstrong, 64. “I never worried about the kids playing outside. It sounds weird, being that we were in the shadow of a prison.”
Handoff to DSHS
Morgan said 20 inmates and a few employees will remain on the island until June 30 to help transfer the responsibilities of ferry, fire-protection and water-treatment duties to DSHS. The department hopes to hire corrections employees to remain on the island to handle such jobs, said Kelly Cunningham, CEO of the Special Commitment Center.
“We’re inheriting a lot of stuff we have no history with,” Cunningham said. “We have had to create positions that don’t exist in DSHS — fire chiefs, boat captains, deckhands, all positions unique to the prison.”
Cunningham said he hasn’t heard of plans to move the Special Commitment Center off the island, but he wouldn’t be surprised if that’s being discussed in the Legislature. It costs about $180,000 annually to hold roughly 300 residents at the facility, he said.
In the remaining weeks, DOC employees will board up windows and doors on prison buildings, employee housing and other sites, Morgan said. State workers also are disconnecting electrical lines and capping off plumbing and water lines.
“There’s no more pill lines, no more response to medical emergencies,” said Armstrong, now helping close the facility. “I’m sorting, packing and shredding. I’m a glorified mover.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire and others will speak at an event Thursday to mark the prison’s final weeks.
Armstrong, who plans to retire after the closure, said there’s a sense of sadness at the prison.
“There used to be kids playing, there used to be flowers in the yards. Now everything is boarded up and it’s like a ghost town,” she said. “I was here when it opened [as a state prison], and I’ll be here for the closing ceremony on Thursday.”
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org