Inmates will head back to McNeil, but as workers

Starting next week, prison inmates will once again help maintain McNeil Island and its fleet of boats.

These offenders won’t live on the island, as did the ones who left in 2011 with the closing of McNeil Island Corrections Center. They will be driven in from Cedar Creek Corrections Center, a minimum-security work camp near Littlerock, and take the ferry from Steilacoom.

The state Department of Corrections takes over responsibility Sunday for stewardship of most of the island outside the Special Commitment Center, the sex-offender lockup that remains in the hands of another state agency, the Department of Social and Health Services.

Lawmakers made the switch in the state budget they passed in June. Moving the commitment center to the mainland would be politically difficult, but maintaining its island location is pricey without inmate labor. And lawmakers wouldn’t agree to relax supervision for some of the center’s roughly 300 sex predators so they could form substitute work crews.

With inmates unavailable and sex offenders restricted, DSHS has been employing boys from a Lakewood youth-rehabilitation facility. The juveniles have helped shipwrights and mechanics keep ferries, barges and other boats in working order.

Starting Sunday, adult inmates will replace the youths on the docks. The inmates, first 10 and ramping up to 40, will maintain the island, doing jobs such as clearing weeds, said Danielle Armbruster, assistant director of DOC’s Correctional Industries. One state employee will supervise a crew of 10 offenders.

Correctional Industries employs prisoners who volunteer and whose records qualify, paying them 55 cents to $1.60 an hour minus their debts. Sex offenders can’t participate.

Inmates traveling to and from the island will ride on ferries’ upper decks while sex offenders going to and from the SCC stay below, according to an agreement between the two agencies. The inmates are not likely to work as ferry deckhands, Armbruster said. State employees will continue to operate the boats.

State workers, who are moving from DSHS to Corrections, will also run a wastewater treatment plant and water system. DSHS keeps charge of a security staff and six professional firefighters, DSHS spokeswoman Chris Case said.

Roughly 35 state employees switched agencies, and Corrections added about five more to work on island maintenance that wasn’t being done, Armbruster said.

The state is out of compliance with a federal deed that allows state ownership of the 4,445-acre island so long as it keeps a prison there — now closed because of budget cuts — and keeps the property maintained.

A state report estimated costs of $200,000 a year for prison crews to maintain the former prison property, fixing wear and damage to roofs and windows.