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McNeil Island Corrections Center, 1890

McNeil Island Corrections Center, 1890

McNeil Island Corrections Center History

In 1841, McNeil Island was named after William Henry McNeill (www.wikipedia.org), captain of the Hudson Bay Company steamers 'Beaver,' 'Llama,' and 'Una.' In 1853, Ezra Meeker (www.lib.washington.edu) settled on McNeil Island and sold the property in 1862. Meeker’s homestead house was located in the area of the present day main facility yard.

On January 22, 1867, Congress authorized the establishment of a territorial jail in the Washington Territory. On September 17, 1870, the Federal Government purchased 27.27 acres on McNeil Island for a federal prison, which officially opened in 1875. These 27 acres are the site of the main penitentiary complex today.

The original McNeil Island cellhouse was built in 1873. In November 1874, the penitentiary was placed under the direction of the United States Marshal. Eight U.S. Marshals served in Washington Territory prior to Statehood, and it was during Charles Hopkins’ tenure that the McNeil Island Territorial prison opened on May 28, 1875. By the end of that year, the total prison population was nine.

In 1889, Washington was admitted to the Union. The first warden at McNeil Island Penitentiary was Gilbert L. Palmer in 1893. The total custodial force consisted of seven guards. Today, the custodial force of McNeil Island is approximately 411 for both the main facility and North Complex.

In 1904, Attorney General Philander C. Knox (bioguide.congress.gov), was placed in full charge of the jail and McNeil Island was immediately declared an official United States prison. In 1927, an additional 67 acres were purchased for a prison farm to produce vegetable and fruit. Due to the need for water, another 1,618.33 acres were purchased in 1931. This brought the total prison acreage to 2,107.3, just less than half the island's 4,445 acres.

In 1934 the Federal Farm Camp (North Complex) was completed. By 1947, the population was 320 inmates. At one time, the Island provided for itself by raising vegetables, fruit, pork, beef, and milk. Today, the Island still packs beef for use by facilities throughout the State (approximately 70,000 pounds per week) at the meat processing plant.

Through the process of individual purchases and by exercising eminent domain, a fee simple title was granted to the U.S. Government for McNeil Island in 1936. The final transaction in 1940 involved 2,303.1 acres. The entire island, roughly seven square miles, was now under federal control.

In 1944, Butterworth Lake was formed. In 1948, construction began on the community center and school. School was held for the first time in 1952-53.

In 1976, the federal Bureau of Prisons decided to begin shutting down the aging federal Penitentiary on McNeil Island. Washington’s need for additional prison space prompted state officials to explore the possibility of acquiring the prison to house state prisoners.

In 1981, the state signed a lease with the federal government granting the state use of the penitentiary. Later that year the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) began moving inmates into the newly renamed McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC). Inmates were put to work fixing and improving the facility, which had not been maintained during the later years of federal operation. In 1984, the island was officially deeded to the state of Washington.

In 1990, the Legislature appropriated $90 million to expand MICC, and by 1993, the Department of Corrections had built five new medium-security residential units, each housing 256 inmates, and a sixth segregation unit with 129 one-man cells. 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 1993 the Legislature established the 200-bed Work Ethic Camp at MICC; one of only six of its kind in the nation. The balance of the island, 3,119 acres, was deeded to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) for continuing use as a wildlife refuge. Wildlife agents are generally on the island once a week to monitor wildlife. Their boats also occasionally patrol the beaches. The land deeded for DOC use is in 24 separate parcels. Some parcels are about 100 acres, and some only two or three acres.  For example, DOC land includes acreage for the minimum and medium facility complexes, but almost none of the beaches or Butterworth Lake.

DOC is responsible for all island buildings, utilities, and roads. DFW is responsible for management of all island wildlife. There are 52 island homes and a K-5 elementary school. A new deed to McNeil was issued in 1996, from the Department of Justice. Building restrictions were lifted to permit the construction of the new Work Ethic Camp facility. All other original deed covenants continued, i.e., maintaining the federal graveyard, public access limitations, protection of wildlife, etc.

In April 2011, the oldest prison facility in the Northwest marked the end of an era, closing its doors for the last time.

Source: HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "McNeil Island Corrections Center, 1981-Present" by Daryl C. McClary (www.historylink.org).