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Hell on Earth: A forgotten prison that predates McNeil Island

Seatco Territorial Prison
Courtesy of Washington State History Museum
Seatco Territorial Prison

This story is the result of research from a yearlong project in partnership with the Washington State History Museum. It supplements Episode 1 of the podcast Forgotten Prison, a six-part series from KNKX Public Radio hosted by reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel.

Similar to McNeil Island, the town of Bucoda has remnants of a prison now forgotten. But what sets this historic site apart is the active effort to forget.

“The town used to be (called) Seatco, but changed the name due to the notorious nature of the prison,” said Gwen Whiting, lead curator with the Washington State History Museum.

And it’s easy to understand why. The infamous Seatco Prison, a territorial institution that operated privately from 1874 to 1887, was described as “Hell on Earth.”

The Washington Territorial Legislature awarded a contract to Thurston County Sheriff to open the penitentiary. “It was privately operated because the Legislature was reluctant to spend public funds on running a prison,” Whiting said.

A group of local investors were paid $1 per day to house the inmates, who also were contracted out for manual labor for 70 cents a day.

“Part of the contract said they could take the inmates and put them to work, and they would receive any profits from what they did,” Whiting said. “Basically they were paid to house and feed them, and then on top of that they were getting the money for the labor from the inmates.”

The inmates made sashes, doors, blinds and a number of other items, in addition to the manual labor they performed in the community.

“They basically built an entire company,” Whiting said. “A prison-based manufacturing company.”

They basically built an entire company. A prison-based manufacturing company.

When the inmates weren’t working, life was just as bleak. They were denied privileges, such as visitation rights or access to clergy. Whiting said the latter was highly unusual for the era.

“This is a time period where a lot of prisons were being founded by religious folks, who were interested in religious reform and repentance,” she noted.

Throughout history, inmates who spent time at Seatco have recounted the abuses they endured there: starvation, brutality, poor living conditions. They would work 12-hour days without pay and were kept in leg irons for the entirety of their sentences, resulting in sores and maiming of their ankles. 

Eventually, local newspapers exposed the mistreatment.

“The inmates managed to get the ear of an editor,” Whiting said.

The Puget Sound Herald published an investigation in 1884, coverage that contributed to the state’s decision to close the prison.

“Which, of course, resulted in an influx of folks to McNeil,” Whiting noted, when the island prison was new to the South Sound.    

Seatco officially closed in 1888, and the remaining inmates were transferred to the new state penitentiary in Walla Walla. George France, who was among the last to leave, later chronicled his time in what he called Hell on Earth in the book “The Struggles For Life and Home in the Northwest.”

Artifacts from Seatco on display at the Washington State History Museum.
Credit Courtesy of Washington State History Museum
Artifacts from Seatco on display at the Washington State History Museum.

Now, all that’s left of the territorial prison are artifacts in Bucoda Town Hall. They are temporarily on display as part of the Washington State History Museum’s exhibit on McNeil Island, which opens Saturday and runs through May.

And a mass, unmarked grave for the Seatco prisoners who died in custody is located at Forest Grove Cemetery in Tenino.

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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.