Forgotten Prison | KNKX

Forgotten Prison

An abandoned cell at the former McNeil Island Prison. The Washington History Museum is hosting a forum this weekend about life after incarceration. It's organized in conjunction with the museum's exhibit about McNeil Island's now-abandoned prison.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

Former prisoners will gather in Tacoma tomorrow to talk about life after incarceration at a forum hosted by the Washington State History Museum.

McNeil Island
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

Over the past several weeks, the podcast series Forgotten Prison has taught listeners a lot about the Alcatraz of Washington state. Despite the rich history of the now-abandoned prison on McNeil Island, the state left a lot behind when it closed the institution in 2011. In the last episode, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explore what we lose when we forget about prisons. They talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about the conclusion of the series.

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.

prison walls
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

McNeil Island prison ran for more than a century in South Puget Sound. A lot of earth-shaking events happened in the outside world during that time, and those events had ripple effects that were felt in the prison itself.

In the fifth episode of our podcast Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel look at the role McNeil played in world events. Wissel talks about the latest episode of the series with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick.

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. 

The people who worked at the now-abandoned prison on McNeil raised families in houses around the island.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

When it closed in 2011, McNeil Island’s prison was the last of its kind in the country — an institution accessible only by air or water. Being on an island made McNeil unique. In the fourth episode of our six-part podcast series Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explore island life. Alicea talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about what they learned.

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 the McNeil Island prison site.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

The now-abandoned prison at McNeil Island ran for 136 years. That means the history of the place can tell us a lot about how prisons have changed over time.

In Episode 3 of Forgotten Prison, hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel introduce us to former McNeil inmates and guards, and take listeners through the abandoned structures on the island. They talked about what they found with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick.

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 file photo from 2015 shows the main entrance to Washington state's Special Commitment Center next to a fence lined with razor wire on McNeil Island, Wash.
Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press

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. 

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.

Wrought iron gates included in the McNeil Island exhibit at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, opening Saturday.
Kari Plog / KNKX

When McNeil Island prison was operating, one of the first things you’d see when you arrived were huge, wrought iron gates. They were removed from the island after the prison closed in 2011.

Now, they’re part of an exhibit opening Saturday at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. 

Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

KNKX reporters Paula Wissel and Simone Alicea have spent the past year digging into the history of McNeil Island, in partnership with the Washington State History Museum. They're sharing what they found in the six-part podcast, Forgotten Prison. They talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about what they learned.

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.