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Episode 2: Not a Prison

McNeil Island
Parker Miles Blohm

While the prison on McNeil Island closed in 2011, Washington state still runs the Special Commitment Center there. It's where the state keeps "sexually violent predators" who have served their prison time, but are deemed too dangerous to release into society. Technically, the commitment center is not a prison, but the reality is more complicated.

The commitment center brings up a lot of questions about how and why we lock people up: Does the commitment center keep us safe? Why are we paying so much? Does it have to be on an island?

Hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explore those questions in Episode 2 of Forgotten Prison.

The commitment center was created in 1990 as part of the omnibus Community Protection Act. Washington state was the first to create a process of civilly committing sex offenders after their prison sentences, but 19 other states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have since followed suit.

In Washington state, people serving time for sexually violent crimes typically have to go through another trial to determine whether they should be subsequently committed on McNeil Island. Their commitment is indefinite, but they are supposed have the chance to get out through treatment.

The commitment center on McNeil Island is a few miles inland from the old abandoned prison. The center used to share space with the prison, but moved to its own facility on the island in 2004. The commitment center is the only thing running on McNeil now that the prison is closed.

From the outside, the commitment center looks like a prison. It's surrounded by layers of razor wire, and entrances into the complex are controlled. But it's run by the Department of Social and Health Services, not the Department of Corrections. The people there are called residents, not inmates.

It can be hard to wrap your head around this idea of locking people away in a place that's not a prison. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a few times that this process is legal.

The precedent-setting 5-4 ruling came in 1997 in Kansas v. Hendricks. The court ruled on Washington's system in 2001, saying 8-1 that the Special Commitment Center is constitutional.

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, now open at the museum in Tacoma.

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.
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.