McNeil Island Corrections Center, 1981-present

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 4/24/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5239
The McNeil Island Corrections Center, located in southern Puget Sound, 2.8 miles from Steilacoom, Washington, was the oldest prison facility in the Northwest.  Built in 1875, it began as the first federal prison in the Territory of Washington. The federal government declared the prison obsolete in 1976 and began to dismantle the facility.  In 1981, canny state politicians were able to lease the federal penitentiary for state use, and in 1984, the state acquired ownership of the entire seven-square-mile island. The last vestiges of the old federal were replaced by a modern corrections center, sprawling over 89 acres. In April 2011 the McNeil Island Correctional Center was officially closed. The facility had been in operation for 136 years and was the last remaining island-based penal institution in the nation.

Closing Down But Not Closing Down

Even though McNeil Island operated as modern, model institution, in 1976, the Bureau of Prisons decided to phase-out the 107-year-old penitentiary, declaring it "obsolete." The main reason was the high operational and maintenance costs of an aging facility. The prison also needed a major renovation and replacement of all basic systems. The Bureau of Prisons identified about $14,000,000 worth of projects needed to bring the institution close to contemporary standards. The prison depended on a marine fleet to transport people and goods to and from the island, which cost more than $300,000 a year. Also, the new trend was toward smaller, more convenient and manageable prisons, housing no more than 500 inmates. A target date for closing McNeil Island was set for October 1, 1980.

By 1979, the shutdown operation was in full swing. At the Federal Work Camp, the beef and dairy herds were moved to the Federal Correctional Institution at Lompoc, California, and the rest of the livestock was sold. Federal Work Camp shops and equipment were moved to other federal institutions. The work camp remained in operation until the fall of 1979.

To complicate matters, in April 1979, Fidel Castro instigated the "Mariel boat lift," which eventually brought more than 125,000 Cuban refugees to the United States. The McNeil Island Penitentiary was used to house hundreds of illegal Cuban immigrants for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in addition to about 60 regular prisoners. It appeared the prison's closure might have to be postponed indefinitely. But, the situation was resolved and by February 1981, the last of the Cuban refugees were moved out of the prison and the shutdown continued.

Use Controversies Over McNeil Island

In the late 1970s, Washington state had a severe shortage of prison space, and was under federal court order to take speedy action to correct the situation. By 1979, the legislature became aware of the federal government plan to surplus McNeil Island and began to investigate the possibility of acquiring it for state use. This, of course, stirred debate over how best to use the island. The legislature wanted to use the facility to relieve overcrowding at the Walla Walla State Prison and other state institutions. Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), who was promoting a plan to build a new $35,000,000, 500-bed prison in Monroe, was opposed to the idea. She argued that the island was too beautiful and too expensive to use as a prison, and proposed it be turned into a state park. Environmentalists wanted the entire island to be preserved as a wildlife sanctuary.

Another group, representing the McNeil Island's founding families --  homesteaders and their descendants -- felt the island should be returned to them. They argued that in 1936 there were about 500 civilians, mostly farmers, living on the island. The federal government had offered the landowners $50 an acre, or condemn the property at that price, but said if the land was ever abandoned, the original land owners, or their descendants, could have it back. Unfortunately, that promise was never documented. Some of the former homesteaders stated that they would take their fight to the courts or Congress. However they never did so.

Political Shifts Toward Resolution

Meanwhile, the primary election for governor was fast approaching and the gubernatorial candidates, King County Executive John D. Spellman (b. 1926), Republican, and State Representative Jim McDermott (b. 1936) Democrat, strongly favored using the old penitentiary, even temporarily, to allow time for new facilities to be built.  Governor Ray, however, refused to ask the federal government to preserve the prison for possible state use. In September 1980, Representative McDermott beat Governor Ray in state gubernatorial primaries. The race was now between Spellman and McDermott, and both candidates vowed they would request temporary use of the prison as soon as the election was over.

Acting on a request from Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti agreed to an amendment in which the Justice Department would not dismantle the federal prison until the new governor took office. President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) visited Washington state in September 1980, and stated that he supported the efforts of Senators Magnuson and Henry Jackson (1912-1983), to preserve McNeil Island for state use. In November 1980, John Spellman was elected governor.

Governor Spellman's first order of business was to fulfill his campaign promise to secure McNeil Island for state use. He negotiated a contract with the General Services Administration (GSA), to lease the prison for three years, with two one-year extensions permitted, for $440,000 a year. The new correction center would occupy only the original 66 of the islands 4,413 acres. Under an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the remainder of the island would be managed by the Washington State Game Department as a wildlife sanctuary. Any public visitation or use of McNeil Island would be strictly prohibited. Governor Spellman signed the lease agreement with GSA on February 11, 1981.

Steilacoom's Interest in the Matter

On February 18, 1981, Steilacoom citizens, seeking a temporary injunction, sued the Washington Department of Corrections, demanding an environmental impact study on how transferring state prisoners to the McNeil Island Corrections Center would affect their small historic town of 6,000 residents. The lawsuit claimed that the lack of parking and increase in traffic congestion from families waiting for the ferry to visit the island corrections center, would pose severe problems for the community.

The Washington State Attorney General's office argued that the transfer of McNeil Island from federal to state hands, didn't change the use of the facility, therefore eliminated the need for an Environmental Impact Statement. On February 27, 1981, Superior Court Judge James McCutcheon agreed with the state attorney general and declined to grant a request for an injunction against the transfer of state prisoners to the island.

First State Prisoners Arrive

On March 2, 1981, U.S. Marshals transported the last four regular federal prisoners off the island. The following day, Washington State Department of Corrections moved the first 20 state prisoners into the prison. To insure a smooth the transition, the federal warden, Darell D. Gray, and his staff, remained in charge of the prison until June 30, formally transferring authority to the new state superintendent, William Callahan, and his staff on July 1, 1981. Forty-one of the federal employees remained in their jobs, shifting to state employment. The McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary was renamed the McNeil Island Corrections Center.

Under federal law, surplus government property can be given to states for public use. In 1981, the new Reagan administration's policy was for General Services Administration to sell surplus government property at its full market value, but giving away federal prisons was encouraged as a way to help states fight crime. GSA determined that Washington State must apply separately for the prison and wildlife habitat portions of the island. An option was to attempt to convince federal officials the state needed all of McNeil Island for prisons purposes.

June 1981, Senator Warren G. Magnuson introduced legislation that would permit transferring ownership of McNeil Island to Washington State. The Senate passed Magnuson's bill in May 1982, but itdied in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, state politicians were determined to continue their bid for McNeil Island, either through donation or purchase from the federal government.

By September 1981, the Corrections Center had an inmate population of 391. Since the federal government had stopped doing even routine maintenance in 1979, when Congress ordered closure, the inmates were immediately put to work fixing and improving the facility. They were paid a salary of $50 a month. In addition to work inside the institution, the inmates had 54 staff houses, 70 miles of roads, and several boats and tugs to repair and maintain. Superintendent William Callahan said there was enough work to keep a thousand people busy on the island for 10 years.

Bureaucratic Battles

Over the next two years, negotiations to transfer McNeil Island to state ownership bogged down in bureaucracy and turf battles among the Senate, Congress, and federal agencies. In October 1983, Senators Slade Gorton (R-Washington) and Daniel Evans (R-Washington) put the island's acquisition on their legislative agenda. Their plan was to attach a one-paragraph amendment to one of the big spending bills. After consultation with several powerful Republican senators, Evans and Gorton selected the defense-appropriation bill for their legislative amendment rider.

When the defense bill came to the floor, Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) challenged the McNeil Island amendment, wanting to know why the Senate was asked to give away valuable federal property for free. Metzenbaum said that Washington State had already offered to pay $8.8 million for the island and that the General Services Administration had appraised McNeil's full market value at $14 million. With mounting Democratic opposition, Gorton decided to withdraw the amendment. He reintroduced it the following week. This time, following a brief floor exchange, the measure cleared the Senate.

From there, the defense-spending bill went to the House, but a problem arose when Representative Jack Brooks (D-Texas), chairman of the Government Operations Committee, opposed the McNeil Island transfer. Brooks opposed the policies of the Reagan Administration regarding the disposal of federal surplus property and feared that giving the McNeil Island prison to Washington State would set a bad precedent.  Representative Norm Dicks (D-Washington) negotiated a rewording of the amendment, calling it an "educational-correctional facility," which satisfied Brooks's objections. The McNeil Island amendment passed unceremoniously amid some 20 other amendments in the rush to complete the defense-appropriations bill.

A State Prison and a Wildlife Preserve

On January 4, 1984, Governor John D. Spellman signed documents drawn up by the General Services Administration, officially deeding the seven-square-mile McNeil Island to Washington State. Under terms of the agreement authorized by Congress, the state would be allowed to continue operating the abandoned federal penitentiary, but couldn't permit any major development of the rest of the island. The area was designated an official wildlife preserve and any public visitation or use of McNeil Island would be strictly prohibited.

In 1989, a study done for the Department of Corrections revealed that McNeil Island was one of the most expensive prisons in the state to operate. Its island location added to the cost, but the main reason was the prison's small size. In 1990, the legislature appropriated $392 million to expand existing prisons and to build two new 1,000-bed prisons. The McNeil Island Corrections Center was scheduled for the first expansion project, estimated to cost $90 million.

By fall 1993, Department of Corrections had built five new, modern, medium-security residential units, each housing 256 inmates, and a sixth segregation unit with 129 one-man cells, boosting the prisons capacity from about 800 to 1,300 inmates. The original cellblock was demolished and replaced in 1994 with an inmate services building housing a hospital, educational center, recreation room, hobby shop, music room, and gymnasium.

In 1998, the state legislature authorized moving the Special Commitment Center  from the Monroe Corrections Center to McNeil Island. The Special Commitment Center was created in 1990 by the passage of the Sexual Predator Law.  Rather than being released following the end of their prison term, chronic and violent sex offenders could be civilly committed after a court's determination that they were "mentally abnormal." The new Special Commitment Center is a total confinement facility located within the corrections center's secure perimeter. The program, designed to provide long-term, specialized mental health treatment for sex offenders, is operated under the control and direction of the Department of Social and Health Services.

Thus last vestiges of the old federal penitentiary have disappeared, replaced by a modern corrections center, sprawling over 89 acres. As Superintendent Eldon Vail said in an interview with The (Tacoma) News Tribune on June 13, 1994, "There's not many institutions where you can go out in the yard and see Mount Rainier, and see a bald eagle, and see a deer through the fence, and see the bay."

End of an Era

But in December 2010, Governor Christine Gregoire decided to close the McNeil Island Correctional Center, cutting approximately $8.6 million per year from the Washington state budget. Although the facility had been upgraded in the 1990s, it was still the state’s most expensive prison to run due to age and reliance on vessels. The Department of Social and Health Services, however, would continue to operate the Special Commitment Center, which housed some 300 residents, in the middle of the island.

Over the next four months, most inmates and staff members were transferred to other correctional facilities, leaving a handful of personnel and trustees behind for decommissioning. On Friday, April 1, 2011, the McNeil Island Correctional Center was officially closed. The facility had been in operation for 136 years and was the last remaining island-based penal institution in the nation.


Sources: Paul W. Keve, The McNeil Century: The Life and Times of an Island Prison (Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1984); Ross Anderson, "McNeil Island Prison to be Phased Out," The Seattle Times, February 1, 1977, p. A-1; "Former Resident of McNeil Says Land Should Be Returned," Ibid., August 25, 1979, p. A-9; "Legislators Still Favor Use of McNeil Prison," Ibid., September 6, 1979, p. A-11; Susan Gilmore, "Legislators Argue for McNeil Site," Ibid., September 12, 1979, p. A-14; Susan Gilmore, "Founding Families Want Their Land Back," Ibid., September 12, 1979, p. A-14; Ross Anderson, "McNeil Too Nice For Prison -- Ray," Ibid., January 11, 1980, p. C-2; Lee Moriwaki, "Spellman, Ray at Odds Over McNeil," Ibid., February 28, 1980, p. B-2; "Magnuson to Help Obtain McNeil Island for Use as State Prison," Ibid., September 20, 1980, p. A-1; Peter Rinearson, "Ray Continues to Oppose Use of McNeil Prison," Ibid., September 25, 1980, p. B-2; "State Gets Chance at McNeil," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 25, 1980, p. A-1; "Spellman OKs Task Forces on Prison Agency, McNeil," The Seattle Times, January 27, 1981, p. D-24; "Steilacoom Against McNeil Prison Plan," Ibid., February 2, 1981, p. C-1; "Spellman to Sign Lease for Use of McNeil Island Prison Wednesday," Ibid., February 9, 1981, p. C-1; Paul Anderson, "Steilacoom Sues to Block State Prison," Ibid., February 19, 1981, p. B-4; "Judge OKs transfers to McNeil," Ibid., March 1, 1981, p. A-21; "Last Seven Federal Convicts Marched Out of McNeil Prison," Ibid., March 3, 1981, p. C-1; Doug Underwood, "State ready to take on McNeil: Rundown and Unkempt, Prison Can Still Ease Overcrowding Woes," Ibid., March 3, 1981, p. C-1; Doug Underwood, "McNeil: First State Inmates Arrive," Ibid., March 4, 1981, p. A-1; Mike Layton, "Oldest Prison is the State's Newest," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 1, 1981, p. A-8; David Ammons, "So Far, McNeil Is a Fine State Prison," Ibid., September 20, 1981, p. H-3; Herb Robinson, "State is Lucky to Have Its 'Newest' Prison," The Seattle Times, January 13, 1982, p. A-14; "Senate-passed Bill Allows U. S. to Give McNeil Island to State," Ibid., May 28, 1982, p. D-8; Eric Pryne, "New Policy Could Complicate McNeil Turnover," Ibid., May 29, 1982, p. A-12; Ross Anderson, "McNeil Island to be Transferred to State," Ibid., November 19, 1983, p. A-1; Ross Anderson, "McNeil: How the State Delegation Won an Island," Ibid., November 27, 1983, p. A-17; "It's Official, State Owns McNeil Island," Ibid., January 5, 1984, p. C-1; "McNeil Island Prison: Growing Pains," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 3, 1989, p. C-12; Jim Simon, "Gardner Offers Plan to Build Prisons -- Governor Wants 6-year, $392 Million Program," The Seattle Times, October 20, 1989, p. A-1; "New McNeil Cellblock to Upgrade Amenities," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 16, 1993, p. B-2; "The Area Briefly -- Pierce County: McNeil Inmates Move to New Cellblocks," The News Tribune, May 13, 1993, p. B-2; Lisa Kremer, "A New Homeyness at McNeil: Island Prison Facilities Rebuilt," Ibid., June 13, 1994, p. B-1; Susan Byrnes, "Space in Prisons Can't Keep up with Inmates; Tougher Sentencing for Drugs, Violent Crime Crowds State Prisons," The Seattle Times, December 5, 1995, p. B-1; Jennifer Sullivan, "Doors Closing at McNeil," The Seattle Times, March 1, 2011, p. A-1;
Rob Carson, "As McNeil Island Prison Closes, Memories Remain," The News Tribune, March 4, 2011, p. A-1.
Note: This essay was updated on April 18, 2011.

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