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Analysis: Reflecting on the ‘beautiful time’ for McNeil islanders outside the prison walls

The people who worked at the now-abandoned prison on McNeil raised families in houses around the island.
Parker Miles Blohm
The people who worked at the now-abandoned prison on McNeil raised families in houses around the island.

When it closed in 2011, McNeil Island’s prison was the last of its kind in the country — an institution accessible only by air or water. Being on an island made McNeil unique. In the fourth episode of our six-part podcast series Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explore island life. Alicea talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about what they learned.

The reason people were living on the island outside the prison was to make sure the folks who worked at the facility were at the ready.

“The prison needed to have access to people right away,” Alicea said.

So, the people who needed to be there brought their families with them. And with families came kids, obviously.

The first time Alicea spoke to someone about life on the island, to her surprise, the person remarked on a lack of crime in the community back then. That’s because the criminals were all behind bars.

“That meant the kids kind of had free reign over this island,” she said. 

They went fishing, climbing and some even started driving around the island at 12 years old in “junker island cars,” Alicea said, because there were no police around.

“They really look back on it as this beautiful time in their lives,” Alicea said of the people who grew up on McNeil Island.

And although the inmates were incarcerated, they still had plenty of interaction with islanders on the outside. During the federal era of the prison, the men would do cheap labor around the community, take care of the lawn and operate boats. One mobster even became a school-bus driver, transporting kids to the island’s one-room schoolhouse.

“I was never scared,” said Becca Ritchie, who grew up on island in the 1970s.

The only thing that elicited any fear was the alarm that sounded whenever an inmate escaped. But even then, some older kids would hop in cars and try to track down the escapees.

Today, the island is quiet and empty. Windows on the houses where families used to live are boarded up, and only small traces of life remain.

Alicea says it’s emotional for the people who used to call their idyllic island home.

“Closing it was a real loss to those people,” she said. “Not only to just close it, but to leave it there and let it rot, really hits people in a profound way.”

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 hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
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 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.
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.