Forgotten Prison | KNKX

Forgotten Prison

Forgotten Prison premiers on Jan. 22

McNeil Island in South Puget Sound is the Alcatraz you've never heard of. The now-abandoned prison on McNeil operated for 136 years. Today, the island is home to the Special Commitment Center, which houses Washington state's "sexually violent predators." A collaboration between KNKX and the Washington State Historical Society, Forgotten Prison tells the stories of inmates, guards, and children who grew up on the island.  The history of this forgotten place can tell us a lot about how and why we lock people up.

A man stands on a pier with Alcatraz Island at rear in San Francisco, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. Despite being a model for Alcatraz, McNeil Island's prison hasn't garnered as much publicity in pop culture.
Jeff Chiu / The Associated Press

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.

ferry dock at McNeil Island
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

McNeil Island is an especially forgotten prison. But, in the end, all prisons are forgotten in some way. In the last episode of Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel wrestle with why that is.

abandoned prison
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

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.

Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

Studying the history of an American prison is really just a study in American history. Pick a major event, and odds are good you can find at least one story related to McNeil Island. 

McNeil Island resident Henry G. Minkema is pictured with a pet deer in this undated photo.
Courtesy of Washington State Archives

Put simply, Charles Scanlon is an animal guy.

Like many families, the Scanlons had a dog — a German shepherd — that roamed freely during their years living on McNeil Island, where Charles worked as a federal prison guard.

But, as his son Terry can attest, growing up on McNeil in the 1970s meant life was different — and so were the pets.

One of the homes that housed prison staff and their familes on McNeil Island.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

One obvious thing that made the prison on McNeil unique was its island location. In Episode 4 of Forgotten Prison, we hear from former guards, inmates and children who grew up there, as well as someone descended from island homesteaders, about life in and around an island prison.

Abandoned cells at McNeil Island's prison site.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

McNeil Island opened around the time the state shuttered Seatco Prison, the infamous institution that eventually became known as Hell on Earth. And while McNeil was a step up in some ways, the now-abandoned prison experienced decades of its own poor conditions and mistreatment.

abandoned cells at McNeil Island's prison site.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

The abandoned prison on McNeil Island and its 136-year history can tell us a lot about why we lock people up and how it has changed over time. Hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explore the decaying structures on the island to learn how the modern American prison system came to be.

This Oct. 20, 2015 photo shows the grounds of Washington state's Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, Wash.
Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press

Two episodes into the Forgotten Prison podcast, we talk about a place that isn’t a prison at all — at least not technically.

McNeil Island
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

While the prison on McNeil Island closed in 2011, Washington state still runs the Special Commitment Center there. It's where the state keeps "sexually violent predators" who have served their prison time, but are deemed too dangerous to release into society. Technically, the commitment center is not a prison, but the reality is more complicated.

Seatco Territorial Prison
Courtesy of Washington State History Museum

This story is the result of research from a yearlong project in partnership with the Washington State History Museum. It supplements Episode 1 of the podcast Forgotten Prison, a six-part series from KNKX Public Radio hosted by reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel.

Similar to McNeil Island, the town of Bucoda has remnants of a prison now forgotten. But what sets this historic site apart is the active effort to forget.

Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

There are a thousand stories about McNeil Island. And odds are, you haven't heard any of them. In Episode 1 of Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explain how we came to abandon one of the country's first federal prisons.

Forgotten Prison podcast logo
Adrian Florez / KNKX

KNKX premiers Forgotten Prison on Jan. 22, a new podcast featuring McNeil Island — the Alcatraz you've never heard of.