McNeil Island’s history mirrors American history that unfolded outside the prison walls. And one of its darker chapters collides with the Korean War and what was then a mysterious new disease.
Soldiers returned to the states infected with hepatitis, baffling the doctors tasked with treating them. So, to learn more, inmates were approached to volunteer for medical testing.
“It was apparently a very common practice into the ’70s,” said David Beals, a historian with the Washington State Archives who conducted research for the McNeil Island exhibit at the Washington State History Museum.
At face value, the process was consensual: inmates would volunteer for testing in exchange for incentives. “In return for reduced sentences, inmates at McNeil were offered the opportunity to volunteer to be infected with hepatitis so they could perform tests trying to cure it,” Beals said.
Still, a more nuanced look muddies the idea of consent, say Forgotten Prison co-hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel. Inmates lacked agency, since people with power over them were the ones asking them to participate. And it’s unclear if the inmates knew exactly what they were signing up for when they were approached.
“There isn’t a lot of paperwork on what was presented to the inmates,” Beals said. “The whole point of this test was that nobody knew the repercussions of hepatitis.”
But the uncertainty didn’t deter participants. Roughly 200 inmates volunteered for the experiments over the course of two years; at least two of them died.
The testing wasn’t a secret. A newspaper in Chehalis reported on the deaths, and it wasn’t unusual during that era. “Tests like this were taking place at prisons all over the country,” Beals said.
It’s unclear just how much participants’ sentences were reduced, Beals noted, but it was likely relative to the types of crimes committed by the inmates in question.
In the meantime, inmate volunteers were treated to incentives inside the prison, too.
“I found a whole photo album of photographs from a banquet they threw for the inmates who participated in this test,” Beals said, “to thank them for their participation.”
The inmates enjoyed a buffet and performances — including one by a team of acrobats.
“McNeil had an acrobat team for decades,” Beals said. “And that kept popping up. Any time there is a celebratory event, the acrobat team performed.”
Another time, for example, the team performed at a dinner for Babe Ruth. The Hall of Famer met with the inmates and played on the prison’s baseball diamond. The visit ended with cake provided by the warden and, of course, acrobatics.
“They're doing the exact same pose,” Beals said of a photograph marking the occasion, noting that this was about 20 years before the thank-you banquet for hepatitis testing. “So I think the acrobats were able to pass on the acrobatic routine.”
This story is the result of research from a yearlong project in partnership with the Washington State History Museum. It supplements Episode 5 of the podcast Forgotten Prison, a six-part series from KNKX Public Radio hosted by reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel. Subscribe via Apple, Google or anywhere you get podcasts.