KNKX reporter Simone Alicea takes us into the hidden history of Washington's longtime island prison.

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Washington’s McNeil Island prison preceded California’s Alcatraz Island — and long outlasted it.

McNeil even held some of the same notorious prisoners, including Charles Manson and Robert Stroud, better known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

Yet McNeil, located in south Puget Sound off of Steilacoom, has remained comparatively obscure.

An ongoing project, “Forgotten Prison,” by public radio 88.5 FM KNKX and the Washington State History Museum shines a light on the prison’s 135-year history.

KNKX reporter Simone Alicea is our featured guest on Episode 99 of The Overcast, talking about the six-part Forgotten Prison podcast she co-produced with KNKX’s Paula Wissel.

The project, in the works for a year, goes all the way back to the McNeil’s founding in 1875, fourteen years prior to Washington becoming a state, to its closure in 2011.

Alicea explains how McNeil’s history mirrors the changing landscape of American incarceration, from its early days, when most inmates were locked up for selling liquor to Native Americans, to today, with the prison shuttered and decaying because it was too expensive to maintain.

Only the state’s Special Commitment Center remains — a facility where Washington keeps sexually violent offenders who have served their prison sentences, yet are still locked up indefinitely through a civil commitment law as they are viewed as too dangerous to release.

Alicea previews stories about life on the McNeil Island, its role in wartime internment of Japanese Americans, and even in state politics, especially the 1980 gubernatorial election between Democrat Dixy Lee Ray and Republican John Spellman.

Be sure and listen to the end for the bonus tale of a long-ago McNeil prison break, featuring a thrilling rowboat chase!

This podcast episode was recorded at the Seattle studios of KNKX, as part of an ongoing partnership.

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