Analysis: A look inside the part of McNeil still operating — the Special Commitment Center | KNKX

Analysis: A look inside the part of McNeil still operating — the Special Commitment Center

It’s a question that isn’t so easily answered: what exactly is the Special Commitment Center? The prison on McNeil island closed in 2011, but the SCC still operates there. It houses sex offenders who have already served their prison time, but have been deemed too dangerous to release into society. 

KNKX reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel took a deep dive into the center in Episode 2 of their six-part podcast, Forgotten Prison. They talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about what they learned. 

A good place to start when attempting to explain the SCC is to stress that it’s not a prison.

“A lot of people think it is, and it’s not,” Wissel said. “Washington state was the first state to do this. It’s a place where the state civilly commits people after they’ve done their prison time.”

It’s meant to house people who are classified as “sexually violent predators,” as defined by the state.

“It kind of came down to one event and one person,” Alicea says of the catalyst for the center. That singular figure was Ida Ballasiotes, a former state lawmaker and anti-crime activist who died in 2014. “Her daughter was murdered in 1988." The person who was convicted of the crime was out on work release after being in prison for several sex crimes, Alicea added. 

Ballasiotes pointed to her family trauma to underscore the need for change. She argued that the state Department of Corrections, and Washington more broadly, weren’t taking sex crimes seriously.

Eventually, the governor at the time appointed Ballasiotes to a task force that drafted major criminal justice legislation, the Community Protection Act. The law was the birth of civil commitment for sex offenders who previously committed and served time for the most heinous crimes.

While people assume the SCC is operated by state corrections, it’s actually under the umbrella of the state Department of Social and Health Services.

“Inside and outside is very different,” Wissel said.

This Oct. 20, 2015 photo shows layers of razor wire lining a double fence at Washington state's Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, Wash.
Credit Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press

Outside it’s surrounded by three layers of razor wire. Inside, it looks more like a school, Alicea said. She added that residents, as they’re called, have freedom to “mill about” unlike you’d see in a prison.

To listen to the full conversation, including information about one of the residents who talked with Alicea and Wissel for the second episode, click the play icon above. 

Forgotten Prison is a six-part podcast resulting from a yearlong research partnership with the Washington State History Museum. It's supported in part by a grant from Humanities Washington. Subscribe via Apple, Google or anywhere you get your podcasts.