Nameless graves: Officials look to correct 'disrespect' at old McNeil Island prison cemetery
Author’s note: This story followed up on one we told in Episode 4 of Forgotten Prison, KNKX's podcast about the history of McNeil Island. It really bothers people that there are no names on these graves. Maybe it seems like a little thing, but it just reinforces ideas about what prison is and who ends up there. It's difficult to overstate how special a place McNeil Island is. Taking listeners there through these stories was a big highlight of my year. I highly recommend the rest of the series. (This story originally aired Oct. 10.)
No one has been buried there since the 1970s. The prison has since switched ownership and closed. As far as anyone can say, everyone buried there was a prisoner whose remains were never claimed. They were buried without names or even an identifying prison number.
But Washington state officials now want to remember.
"People do look at it as a very disrespectful part of the history of the island," said David Flynn, CEO of the Special Commitment Center, or SCC.
The SCC is the only thing still running on McNeil Island. The prison closed in 2011, but the commitment center is a separate entity run by the Department of Social and Health Services. It's where the state sends people who have been labeled "sexually violent predators" after they've done their prison time.
Flynn is new to the job. He started as chief of the SCC earlier this summer. But he used to work on the island for the Department of Corrections, when the prison was operating.
"The island means a lot to me," he said. "I'm very excited for the opportunities that we have to be able do great things with the island again."
That connection to McNeil is part of the motivation behind the effort to restore the old prison cemetery.
McNeil first opened as a territorial prison in 1875. After Washington became a state, it became one of the country's first federal prisons. The state took it over in the 1980s and closed the prison for good in 2011 following budget cuts. The SCC has been operating on the island since 1998.
The cemetery was used when the federal government was running the prison. There are 125 unnamed grave stones on the site, plus 18 more that have names and dates. The last of those was laid in 1972.
Not much else can be confirmed. The 125 unnamed stones seem only to be numbered by order of death, not with a string of numbers that would be expected from an inmate number. People who have lived and worked on the island say there used to be a list kept by a prison chaplain connecting the numbers on the stones to names, but that list has not yet been found.
State death records combined with federal prison records provide some clues as to who might be in the cemetery. Many of the names and dates match up. But the records aren't totally reliable or consistent, so there are still plenty of questions, including whether everyone in the cemetery was actually incarcerated in the prison.
In addition to trying to answer those questions, Flynn and others are exploring the possibilities of how these people might be remembered.
AN EXAMPLE ACROSS THE SOUND
That's where the Grave Concerns Association comes in. The organization has spent nearly two decades restoring the old cemetery at Western State Hospital in Lakewood, where patients also were buried without names for a period.
On an August morning, Grave Concerns chairwoman Laurel Lemke and several volunteers trekked out to McNeil Island to get a sense of the prison cemetery there. Despite the challenges, Lemke was optimistic.
"I want to tell you, this looks pretty easy," Lemke said.
The old Western State Hospital cemetery has about 3,200 graves the organization has been working to identify. The group lobbied in Olympia to change state law, so they could display the names of the deceased. They also had to dig up all of the headstones that had sunk into the ground.
So far, Grave Concerns has identified and created new markers for 54 percent of the graves at Western State. Lemke says the small size of the McNeil cemetery and the availability of prison records makes that project less daunting.
Flynn says he appreciates Grave Concerns' approach. The organization puts new headstones with names next to the old numbered ones. They've also built a tall stone marker and a plaque with the names of the dead.
"I've always felt like since we've been doing this work, they're happier," Lemke said of the people buried in the cemetery. "They know that somebody comes and respects them."
Assuming officials can confirm the names of the people buried at the cemetery on McNeil, any of Grave Concerns' approaches could work on the island. The organization is consulting as Flynn and others at DSHS look to fund the project and come up with a plan.
But unlike the old hospital cemetery, which is now part of Fort Steilacoom Park, the old prison cemetery on McNeil probably will remain out of public view. The island is off limits to the public. Even residents at the SCC rarely emerge from the facility.
But residents still know the cemetery is there, outside the razor wire.
"I have received written correspondence from a resident that expressed some dissatisfaction in how the graveyard that sits directly above the Special Commitment Center has people that are disrespected," Flynn said.
Restoring the cemetery is ultimately about correcting that history, Flynn says.
"This is not a bad final resting spot for people," Flynn said. "The scenery is beautiful. It's just the headstones are an issue that we have to address."