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Puget Sound's island prison isn't a pop-culture icon like its California counterpart

Browse the selection of prison movies on streaming services, and the contrast is clear.

Many people, near and far, know about the Rock. But few — even residents across the water — know about McNeil.

South Puget Sound’s island housed inmates decades before Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. And it closed decades after the famed Bay Area prison transformed into a tourist attraction.

Despite its longevity, McNeil Island doesn’t come close to competing with the pop-culture recognition garnered by its California counterpart. Just ask Wikipedia.

“Alcatraz Island in popular culture” is an entire webpage devoted to the prison’s appearances in entertainment, literature, music and more. McNeil, on the other hand, has just a few short bullets.

Films centered on Alcatraz span decades, from “Birdman of Alcatraz” in 1962 to “The Rock” in 1996.

Still, the depth of McNeil Island’s history all but guaranteed it would permeate the world of entertainment somehow. Most prominently, it’s the location of the first scenes of the 1989 action comedy, “Three Fugitives,” starring Nick Nolte and Martin Short. Nolte portrays a man named Lucas, a reformed bank robber who is taken hostage by Ned Perry, Short’s character, after he holds up a bank in desperation.

The film’s opening scene shows Lucas leaving McNeil Island Prison after a five-year sentence (the">ornate gates he exits through are on display as part of a McNeil Island exhibit at the Washington State History Museum).

Former gates from McNeil Island Prison, now on display at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
Credit Kari Plog / KNKX
Former gates from McNeil Island Prison, now on display at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

“I thought you might be lonesome,” says Dugan, played by James Earl Jones, as Lucas walks off the ferry in Steilacoom the day he’s released. “I missed you. Five years is a long time.”

“I agree,” Lucas replies.

“Shoulda been 10, I woulda missed ya more,” Dugan quips.    

Paula Wissel, co-host of KNKX’s podcast series Forgotten Prison, talked with a former inmate who was incarcerated at McNeil when crews were there filming “Three Fugitives.”

“Nick Nolte bought us televisions for the cells,” Mark Bolf said. “It was a big, big plus.”

Bolf said the movie star donated them to show appreciation for the prison’s cooperation during filming there.

While the actual inmates weren’t in the movie, Bolf says it was exciting nonetheless. “We got to meet him,” he said of Nolte. “He did come into our chow hall and talk to us for a little bit.”

McNeil also makes a quick cameo, so to speak, in a more serious film from 1995. “Heat,” starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, tells the story of a group of professional bank robbers who start to feel the heat from police when they unknowingly leave a clue at their latest heist. Lt. Vincent Hanna, played by Pacino, namedrops the Puget Sound’s island prison in an exchange with De Niro’s character, Neil McCauley: “Seven years in Folsom — in the hole for three. McNeil before that. McNeil as tough as they say?”

Simone Alicea, co-host of Forgotten Prison, says the origin of that reference is unclear to her.

“McNeil has always had a reputation for being a better place to do your time, one of the more relaxed institutions,” Alicea said. “Also he mentions Folsom in the same breath, which I think had a much rougher reputation.”

Still, it seems the crew did some homework, says Dave Beals, a historian with the Washington State Archives who helped curate the museum’s McNeil Island exhibit.

Beals noted that Edward Bunker, a former inmate-turned-screenwriter, consulted on the project; Jon Voight’s character was loosely inspired by Bunker, too.

McNeil’s prison also earned a passing reference on television, in a 1967 episode of the show “Dragnet” (the fourth episode of season 2, to be exact).  

A character in a 1967 episode of "Dragnet."
A character in a 1967 episode of "Dragnet."

These select few examples in entertainment were the only McNeil references uncovered in roughly a year of extensive research, in partnership with the Tacoma-based museum. So, why is Alcatraz, a younger prison modeled after McNeil, more prevalent?

Wissel acknowledges she can only speculate, but the contrast may have to do with the publicity that’s swirled around Alcatraz since it opened in the 1930s. It was billed as the inescapable prison for “the worst of the worst.” Meanwhile, McNeil — which opened in 1875 — was already old news.

“McNeil was always a medium and minimum security prison, not the kind of place that inspire the pop-culture imagination,” Wissel said. “Add to that the fact that it’s on an island in South Puget Sound, far less visible than a prison island of San Francisco Bay.”

And with its cold closure in 2011, it’s likely Washington’s forgotten prison will continue to fly under the radar, despite its rich history.

“It’s like McNeil found its way into every chapter of U.S. prison history, but was always in the shadow of something else,” Beals said.

This story is the result of research from a yearlong project in partnership with the Washington State History Museum. It supplements Episode 6 of the podcast Forgotten Prison, a six-part series from KNKX Public Radio hosted by reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel. Subscribe via AppleGoogle or anywhere you get podcasts.

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.