Your Connection To Jazz, Blues and NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Episode 5: It Happened Here

Parker Miles Blohm

Studying the history of an American prison is really just a study in American history. Pick a major event, and odds are good you can find at least one story related to McNeil Island. 

In Episode 5 of Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel show how this one island in South Puget Sound was a party to history, from natural disasters and war to big cultural moments.

The prison on McNeil Island operated for 136 years as a territorial, federal and state prison. Lists of inmates show groups of people who were locked up there because of these earth-shaking events.

As a federal prison, McNeil held people for some military crimes. That included draft-resisters from World War I through the Vietnam War. During World War II, McNeil also held Japanese-American draft-resisters who had been interned as a result of Executive Order 9066.

But the island's connections to history are even deeper. In the 1970s, culture shifts around drugs and civil rights were seeping into prisons. Those shifts informed an increasingly vocal prisoners' rights movement.

McNeil even had a part to play in foreign affairs, housing some 350 Cubans who came over on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, right as the prison was transitioning to state ownership.

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 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.
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.
Related Content
  • 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.
  • 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…
  • The abandoned prison on McNeil Island and its 136-year history can tell us a lot about why we lock people up and how it has changed over time. Hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explore the decaying structures on the island to learn how the modern American prison system came to be.