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Episode 4: Island Life

One of the homes that housed prison staff and their familes on McNeil Island.
Parker Miles Blohm

One obvious thing that made the prison on McNeil unique was its island location. In Episode 4 of Forgotten Prison, we hear from former guards, inmates and children who grew up there, as well as someone descended from island homesteaders, about life in and around an island prison.

When the prison on McNeil Island closed in 2011, it was the last prison in the country accessible only by air or water. (Rikers Island in New York is mostly manmade and connected to the city via bridge.) 

Unlike Alcatraz, "The Rock" in San Francisco Bay, McNeil is more than 4,400 acres. The old prison and staff housing make up a tiny portion of that, with most of the island acting as a wildlife preserve. 

In many ways, McNeil is like other islands in Puget Sound. It's accessible only by foot ferry or barge. It boasts gorgeous mountain views and a plethora of wildlife. Many who lived on the island while the prison was operating saw it as a peaceful respite from city life.

But living next door to a prison made life different. When McNeil was a federal prison, inmates ran the ferry, drove children to the one-room schoolhouse on the island and performed other assorted jobs. Even after McNeil became a state prison in 1981, inmates could be seen doing maintenance around the island. 

Throughout the prison's 136-year history, much of the prison staff lived on the island with their families. Even though the Special Commitment Center remains on McNeil, everyone who works there commutes, so all of the old houses on the island remain abandoned.

Children who grew up on the island recall an idyllic childhood full of freedom and fun. And many former inmates speak fondly of the prison and its view of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier. Even descendents of McNeil's original white settlers feel deeply connected to McNeil, generations after their ancestors lived there.

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, open now 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.