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Analysis: A look inside the part of McNeil still operating — the Special Commitment Center

This file photo from 2015 shows the main entrance to Washington state's Special Commitment Center next to a fence lined with razor wire on McNeil Island, Wash.
Ted S. Warren
/
The Associated Press
This file photo from 2015 shows the main entrance to Washington state's Special Commitment Center next to a fence lined with razor wire on McNeil Island, Wash.

It’s a question that isn’t so easily answered: what exactly is the Special Commitment Center? The prison on McNeil island closed in 2011, but the SCC still operates there. It houses sex offenders who have already served their prison time, but have been deemed too dangerous to release into society. 

KNKX reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel took a deep dive into the center in Episode 2 of their six-part podcast, Forgotten Prison. They talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about what they learned. 

A good place to start when attempting to explain the SCC is to stress that it’s not a prison.

“A lot of people think it is, and it’s not,” Wissel said. “Washington state was the first state to do this. It’s a place where the state civilly commits people after they’ve done their prison time.”

It’s meant to house people who are classified as “sexually violent predators,” as defined by the state.

“It kind of came down to one event and one person,” Alicea says of the catalyst for the center. That singular figure was Ida Ballasiotes, a former state lawmaker and anti-crime activist who died in 2014. “Her daughter was murdered in 1988." The person who was convicted of the crime was out on work release after being in prison for several sex crimes, Alicea added. 

Ballasiotes pointed to her family trauma to underscore the need for change. She argued that the state Department of Corrections, and Washington more broadly, weren’t taking sex crimes seriously.

Eventually, the governor at the time appointed Ballasiotes to a task force that drafted major criminal justice legislation, the Community Protection Act. The law was the birth of civil commitment for sex offenders who previously committed and served time for the most heinous crimes.

While people assume the SCC is operated by state corrections, it’s actually under the umbrella of the state Department of Social and Health Services.

“Inside and outside is very different,” Wissel said.

This Oct. 20, 2015 photo shows layers of razor wire lining a double fence at Washington state's Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, Wash.
Credit Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press
/
The Associated Press
This Oct. 20, 2015 photo shows layers of razor wire lining a double fence at Washington state's Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, Wash.

Outside it’s surrounded by three layers of razor wire. Inside, it looks more like a school, Alicea said. She added that residents, as they’re called, have freedom to “mill about” unlike you’d see in a prison.

To listen to the full conversation, including information about one of the residents who talked with Alicea and Wissel for the second episode, click the play icon above. 

Forgotten Prison is a six-part podcast resulting from a yearlong research partnership with the Washington State History Museum. It's supported in part by a grant from Humanities Washington. Subscribe via Apple, Google or anywhere you get your podcasts. 

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 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 has been hosting Morning Edition on KNKX/KPLU since 2006. She has worked in news radio for more than 30 years. Kirsten is also a sports lover. She handles most sports coverage at the station, including helping produce a two-part series on the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the ongoing series "Going Deep."
Ariel first entered a public radio newsroom in 2004 while in school at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It was love at first sight. After graduating from Bradley, she went on to earn a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ariel has lived in Indiana, Ohio and Alaska reporting on everything from salmon spawning to policy issues concerning education. She's been a host, a manager and now rides shotgun with Kirsten Kendrick as the Morning Edition producer at KNKX.
A Seattle native and former knkx intern, Simone Alicea has returned to the Pacific Northwest from covering breaking news at the Chicago Sun-Times. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.
Kari Plog is an award-winning reporter covering the South Sound, including Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties. Before transitioning to public radio in 2018, Kari worked as a print journalist at The News Tribune in Tacoma.
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