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Analysis: What the now-abandoned McNeil Island prison tells us about locking people up

Abandoned cells at the McNeil Island prison site.
Parker Miles Blohm
Abandoned cells at the McNeil Island prison site.

The now-abandoned prison at McNeil Island ran for 136 years. That means the history of the place can tell us a lot about how prisons have changed over time.

In Episode 3 of Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel introduce us to former McNeil inmates and guards, and take listeners through the abandoned structures on the island. They talked about what they found with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick.

After poring over records that date back to the beginning, it’s clear the prison population and conditions shifted dramatically over time.

In the 1890s, for example, many people who were sent to the prison were locked up for selling liquor to American Indians — a law that was on the books until 1953, Alicea said.

“What it shows us is, even if you think about crime as being static — you know, murder is murder, stealing is bad or whatever it is — that’s just blatantly not true,” she said. “Crimes change all the time and the reasons we lock people up change all the time.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, Wissel added, there was a spike in laws aimed at cracking down on mobsters and gangsters.

“At that time, the McNeil Island prison population doubled,” Wissel said.

Moving into the ’80s and ’90s, changes in criminal justice brought the war on drugs, the three-strikes law to hammer down on serial criminals, and sentencing reform eliminating parole.

“So, you see sentences getting longer,” Alicea said, “which means more people are in prison.”

Prison life changed over time at McNeil Island, too. Cellhouses from 1907 compared to newer ones built in the ’90s “couldn’t be more different,” Alicea said, adding that the latter “looked like my college dorm.”

And the latest episode gives listeners a complicated glimpse into how successful — and not — incarceration is for the inmates who cycle through the system.

What it shows us is, even if you think about crime as being static — you know, murder is murder, stealing is bad or whatever it is — that's just blatantly not true. Crimes change all the time and the reasons we lock people up change all the time.

Charles Manson, the infamous cult leader, learned a lot of his manipulation and recruitment tactics from his time served for petty crimes at McNeil. “And, he perfected his guitar skills,” Wissel noted. 

Leonard Shaw, who was a graduate student conducting fieldwork at the island facility during Manson’s time there, said he questions whether his work ever made a difference on the now-deceased career criminal.

“We had interesting conversations and he would challenge me at times, and I would challenge him at times,” Shaw said. “But when I look back on it, I’m not sure if I had any kind of a constructive impact on him at all.”

Brian Funk is a different story. He did a total of 19 years in prison statewide, including time at McNeil Island. He criticizes the system in many ways, but also is an example of a success story.

He’s a manager at a wastewater treatment plant in Snohomish County, Alicea said, and credits his success later in life to the relationships he fostered behind bars.

“It’s more intimate than even some people have with their own families,” Funk said.

The contrasting results complicate how we think about incarceration, Alicea says.

“(It) makes it really, really hard to wrap your head around whether this system works or doesn’t work,” she said, “and what on earth we can do to make it better.”

Listen to the full conversation 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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