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Analysis: How the history of McNeil intersects with broader American history

prison walls
Parker Miles Blohm

McNeil Island prison ran for more than a century in South Puget Sound. A lot of earth-shaking events happened in the outside world during that time, and those events had ripple effects that were felt in the prison itself.

In the fifth episode of our podcast Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel look at the role McNeil played in world events. Wissel talks about the latest episode of the series with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick.

There are so many stories to tell when reflecting on McNeil’s intersections with broader history.

“One of the more interesting stories (is) from World War II,” Wissel said.

After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. government sent Japanese-Americans along the West Coast to remote internment camps, many young men were asked to participate in the draft. But not everyone did.

Yoshito "Yosh" Kuromiya was one of them. He was 18 years old when he was sent to an internment camp in Wyoming with his family. In 1944, he was convicted of refusing the draft — a federal crime — before being incarcerated at McNeil Island’s prison.

“The government was on the wrong side of this whole issue,” Kuromiya told historians from the Washington State History Museum, who partnered with KNKX Public Radio for research on this project. He was 94 years old at the time of the interview, and died last year in California. “During that time, we saw a whole different side of our government.”

Despite the dark time in his life, Kuromiya fondly recalled the beautiful environment around him when he arrived at the ferry in Steilacoom via train.

But the scenic landscape didn’t make up for the fear that came with being locked up with convicts.  

“When they first arrived at McNeil, he says it was scary,” Wissel told Kendrick. “They were thrown into the big house with criminals. Certainly not something he was used to.”

Kuromiya was one of many draft resisters, spanning several wars, who were locked up at the now-abandoned prisons. Learn more about this and other intersections with history in 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 AppleGoogle or anywhere you get your podcasts.

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