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Washington State Closes McNeil Island Prison

by David M. Reutter

Citing $12 million in annual savings, the Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) has closed the 1,200-bed McNeil Island Corrections Center. A 2009 audit, however, found there would be no actual savings because it would cost the same amount to continue operating the island’s civil commitment center.

With the McNeil Island prison’s April 2010 closure, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) will need an additional $12 million to continue housing 280 sex offenders at the Special Commitment Center (SCC) on the island. That is the estimated amount required to run the ferry, provide fire protection and operate the water treatment plant for the SCC, according to the audit.

Most of those duties had been provided by 150 minimum-security McNeil Island prisoners, who earned 42 cents an hour as virtual slave laborers. Lawmakers gave DSHS $5.6 million to fill 32 to 35 job positions to compensate for the loss of the prisoner labor.

SCC’s director was uncertain if those funds would be sufficient to continue operating the civil commitment center. “We’ll see,” said Kelly Cunningham. “It’s what I’m working with. There’s no way to determine what it’s going to be in the future.”

The prison guards who worked on the island as fire captains, boat captains, deckhands, waste water treatment operators and a plumber have a good chance of retaining their jobs.
“It’s my intent to hire as many of those people back as possible,” said Cunningham. “They’ve been doing this a long time, and they know the island.”

The WDOC had made $165 million in upgrades to the prison since 1990. Despite that investment, the entire facility will now be allowed to deteriorate. “We’re essentially walking away,” said Bernie Warner, WDOC’s director of prisons.

The buildings that comprise the facility have been put into cold closure, which means the ventilation systems are capped, water pipes are drained, the sewers cleared and the heat turned off. A warm closure would have preserved the internal systems and maintained heat at 50 degrees, but would have cost $500,000 annually.

The 50 prison staff homes on the island have been boarded up and the roads will be allowed to erode. The entire facility is subject to salvage and demolition. At least one state lawmaker was upset.

“I am very sad and disappointed at what I have seen and what has transpired. I’ve tried to find the numbers that would prove to me that it would make good sense to throw away perfectly good buildings,” said state Senator Mike Carrell. “With no thought of what they can do to find another use for this, they’re going pell-mell toward absolute destruction, like a meth addict ripping all the wire out of the house.”

Carrell, who represents the district that includes McNeil Island, “wasn’t asked or consulted before the [prison closure] deal was made.”

The closure is a change from the WDOC’s position in November 2009, when the department lobbied to maintain operation of the facility with a few hundred prisoners to provide for future growth of the state’s prison population. “It is a decision we have weighed and gone back and forth on,” said then WDOC secretary Eldon Vail when he announced the closure later that same month.

The WDOC said it will build a new reception center at a lower cost. It has not selected a site or provided a budget for that project.

DSHS is now in control of the 4,445-acre island. “We will be responsible for the whole island,” said Cathy Harris, SCC’s associate superintendent. That includes an agreement with the State Department of Ecology, which has a dock for an annual roundup of the area’s harbor seals. The State Department of Fish and Wildlife also maintains a 3,119-acre wildlife refuge that is off-limits to the public.

With the closure of the prison, there is no security on the island. A local town is only a quarter-mile away by boat. “With nobody to guard the chicken coop, there will be people coming over and just squatting,” said Senator Carrell. “They’re not gonna have a clue about what’s happening at night in those [abandoned] houses.”

The prisoners formerly housed at McNeil Island have been scattered among prisons across the state; prison employees were also transferred to other facilities.

Carrell expressed concern that the 280 civilly committed sex offenders at SCC and the center’s 420 employees would be moved elsewhere in the future. “They’re gonna say, ‘Well, we’ve now looked at it and we need to move the sexual psychopaths off the island, too.’ I will fight that,” he stated.

However, closing the SCC is an unlikely prospect. “Given the controversy surrounding our program, given public opinion, I just don’t see us being moved,” said Cunningham. “No one’s ever talked to me about that – ever.”

The closure of the McNeil Island Corrections Center ends the facility’s 135-year history; it opened in 1875, 14 years before Washington became a state. A former federal penitentiary, the prison has held Charles Manson, crime boss Mickey Cohen and Robert Stroud – also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. It was the last island-based prison still in operation in the U.S. and one of three left in the world. Pierce County officials had long complained about being saddled with a state prison yet when it closed they were not rejoicing.

Sources: The Olympian, CNN,, Seattle Times

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