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Episode 1: Forgotten

Parker Miles Blohm

There are a thousand stories about McNeil Island. And odds are, you haven't heard any of them. In Episode 1 of Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explain how we came to abandon one of the country's first federal prisons.

The prison on McNeil Island in South Puget Sound opened in 1875, more than a decade before Washington became a state. It operated as a territorial, federal, then a state prison. The state closed it down in 2011, to save money.

Today, the only thing on the island is the Special Commitment Center, where the state civilly commits "sexually violent predators" who have already served their prison time, but are deemed too dangerous to release.

In this episode of the podcast from KNKX and the Washington State History Museum, we explore why so many people are unfamiliar with this island prison in their backyard.

Alcatraz, in the San Francisco Bay, is the country's better-known island prison. It's the subject of movies and shows. The old prison on the "Rock," as it's known, is now home to a museum detailing its history and its colorful cast of famous former inmates.

McNeil Island is still off limits to the public, and it's unlikely the island will ever host a museum. But its history is just as significant, if not more, than that of its more famous California counterpart.

McNeil was one of the first three federal prisons, as designated by the Three Prisons Act of 1891. It had its own share of famous inmates: from Robert Stroud, later known as "The Birdman of Alcatraz," to infamous cult leader Charles Manson. When it closed, McNeil was the last prison in the country accessible only by air or water.

Forgotten Prison is a six-part weekly podcast in partnership with the Washington State History Museum. Subscribe via Apple, Google or anywhere you get your podcasts. And be sure to check out the accompanying exhibit, opening Saturday at the museum in Tacoma.

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