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Analysis: What it means to forget about prison and people locked up there

McNeil Island
Parker Miles Blohm

Over the past several weeks, the podcast series Forgotten Prison has taught listeners a lot about the Alcatraz of Washington state. Despite the rich history of the now-abandoned prison on McNeil Island, the state left a lot behind when it closed the institution in 2011. In the last episode, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explore what we lose when we forget about prisons. They talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about the conclusion of the series.

Episode 6 introduces listeners to Robert Stroud, one of the more famous inmates to be locked up at McNeil, who eventually was known as “The Birdman” of Alcatraz. He wrote a lot, including about conditions at the prison in South Puget Sound.

“What I think is really interesting about him is that he didn’t just write about birds and he didn’t just write about his personal experience in prison, but he really kind of studied the conditions of prison,” Alicea said.

And, she added, what he wrote then could be written today.

“His big question was ‘what is the point of prison?’” Alicea said. “Is it a form of punishment or is it meant to rehabilitate?”

Stroud made the point that if any other business had a 50 percent recidivism rate, it would be considered a failure. Even today, the recidivism rate is in the 30-percent range.

The episode also shares remarks from Mark Bolf, who has been in and out of prison for auto theft.

“There’s always that knowledge in the back of your head that you are here, you have to stay here,” he said. “Your family has to get along without you, which is a great burden for a lot of families. You’re really useless.”

The stories illustrate the amount of loss that goes along with incarceration: Bolf's wife and mother died while he was locked up, and he didn’t have a chance to go to funerals and grieve.

“It ripples out to everyone else connected to that person,” Wissel said of being locked up.

More generally, as the series wraps up, Kendrick said she learned a lot from it.

“It’s making me think more about the role prisons play in our society, the good and the bad, and how all of this is going to inform our opinions going forward,” she said.

Listen to the full conversation above. Forgotten Prison is supported in part by a grant from Humanities Washington. Subscribe via Apple, Google or anywhere you get your podcasts.

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