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Budget crisis means closure for McNeil Island prison

Washington's oldest prison will close by April 1st, a casualty of the state's current budget crisis. McNeil Island Corrections Center's 500 inmates will be moved to other facilities. Some of the 245 employees will be reassigned, while others stand to lose their jobs.

It’s the end of a storied history. McNeil is Washington’s Alcatraz. Surrounded by water and accessible only by boat, McNeil is the last true island prision in the United States. But now, thirty years after the state took it over from the feds, it’s been deemed too expensive to continue operating.

Washington Secretary of Corrections Eldon Vail spent three years there as superintendent and even lived on the island.

“It’s a historic facility that’s seen many flamboyant characters some of them were on the staff and some of them were in the incarcerated population. I hate to see it go, but we just can’t afford to keep it open when there are cheaper ways to do business,” Vail said.

Closing the south Puget Sound penetentiary will save the state $6.3 million a year, according to a statement from the Department of Corrections. 

“This will save the most money without compromising the safety of our staff, the offenders and the public,” said Vail. “The budget crisis is causing us to make some of the most painful decisions in our agency’s history."

The plan also reverses a decision to shutdown Larch Corrections Center near Vancouver. It was slated for closure as way to save $2 million. With the state budget deficit deepening, Vail said shuttering Larch wouldn't save enough money. DOC is facing a $53 million deficit.

In the past year McNeil had been significantly downsized from 1,200 to 515 inmates. Those who remain are considered 'minimum' security. Many will be transfered to the Larch facility.

The island is also home to the state's Special Commitment Center. It will remain open, as its managed by the Department of Social and Health Services. The center houses sexual offenders indefinitely, once they've completed their prison sentences.

Earlier this year, DOC shutdown two smaller facilities: the Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women near Spokane, and the Ahtanum View facility near Yakima.

With McNeil Island's closure, the state will retain 12 prisons. DOC leaders say they are large enough to house the system's 16,000 inmates.

Recent protests by Teamster's Union members, representing some correctional facilities employees, decry the DOC budget cuts, saying they are putting workers at risk.  Union members protested outside the state penetentiary at Monroe on Wednesday, where a daylong lockdown took place to save money, according to The Herald of Everett.

Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services will take over operations on McNeil – including the ferry boat- because it still runs the special commitment center there for sex offenders.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.