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Analysis: Forgotten Prison hosts introduce listeners to life on McNeil Island

Parker Miles Blohm

KNKX reporters Paula Wissel and Simone Alicea have spent the past year digging into the history of McNeil Island, in partnership with the Washington State History Museum. They're sharing what they found in the six-part podcast, Forgotten Prison. They talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about what they learned.

The first episode takes listeners to McNeil, a prison nobody really wanted. And while it’s easy to forget about, the now-abandoned prison is part of a foundation of a prison system we still use today.

“The fact of the matter is there’s just a lot of history here,” Alicea said. “It was actually one of the first federal prisons in the country. It was a model for Alcatraz.”

It was a federal prison until 1981, when Washington state took over operations. Despite its 136-year run, few people are familiar with this significant piece of regional and national history.   

“Nobody seems to know anything about McNeil,” Wissel said.

Perhaps one reason the island remains shrouded in mystery is the lack of access. Unlike its well-known California counterpart Alcatraz, McNeil is off limits to the public.

Still, it has just as much history — if not more —than the prison-turned-museum in The Golden State. For example, the infamous “Birdman of Alcatraz” and convicted murderer, Robert Stroud, was locked up at McNeil before landing at the California prison.  

“He actually wrote extensively about his life in prison, and about McNeil island,” Wissel said.

The island's history extends beyond the walls of its prison, too. Workers lived there with their families, and kids had “a remarkable amount of freedom,” Alicea said. She and Wissel stressed the "idyllic" setting for those who lived on McNeil.

“It was like paradise,” Wissel said.

Becca Ritchie was among those living in paradise. She grew up on the island in the 1970s, when her father ran the prison employee store.

“It was a real tight community, where we didn’t lock our doors,” Ritchie said. “It was a very different place to grow up than, like, downtown Tacoma.”

Wissel says the lifestyle there was almost like that of a private island, with more than 4,000 acres of land that’s now a wildlife refuge. Prisoners even had scenic views of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier from their cells.

Still, the reporters stress, it was prison.

Now, the site is covered with signs of life after the state picked up and left in 2011.

“When the state closed it, they just walked away,” Wissel said, recalling evidence of coffee cups on desks and files strewn about during a recent visit to McNeil.

“You cannot get away from the fact that there were people here,” Alicea said, “that lives were lived there.”

Listen to the full conversation above. Forgotten Prison is supported in part by a grant from Humanities Washington. Subscribe via Apple, Google or anywhere you get your podcasts.    

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.
Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.
Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.