Pierce County will never be mistaken for Hawaii, but its collection of islands — including Anderson, Fox, Ketron and McNeil — bring beauty and character to this place we call home.
While each of the islands is sometimes overlooked, none gets short shrifted more than McNeil. You’re not allowed to visit and you wouldn’t want to live there, since its only residents are a few hundred convicted sexually violent predators at the inordinately expensive Special Commitment Center. Its rich 135-year history as a federal, state and territorial prison ended when the Washington Department of Corrections shuttered it in 2011.
“For predators, it’s a paradise preserve; for the public, it is off limits,” wrote Bill Barker of Shelton, arguably McNeil Island’s biggest cheerleader, in a 2015 column. The Navy veteran and occasional TNT op-ed contributor added that “McNeil Island seems heart-shaped to me when viewed upon a map or marine chart, though a rather broken one.”
Thank goodness the Washington State History Museum is pumping new life into the island’s legacy. On Jan. 26, an exhibit opens at the downtown Tacoma museum called “Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People.”
McNeil hardly registers a blip on the radar of public interest compared to Alcatraz in California, even though McNeil operated far longer as an island prison. That’s largely because Alcatraz is maintained as a National Park System attraction while McNeil is shrouded in inaccessible mystery. When it closed, it was the last prison in the U.S. reachable only by air or water.
But McNeil Island’s cast of characters is no less colorful, including Charles Manson, on a forgery conviction before his real troubles began; Robert Stroud, aka the Birdman of Alcatraz; and Roy Gardner, a notorious train robber who escaped McNeil three times.
What makes this exhibit extra special is the museum’s partnership with journalists at KNKX Public Radio. They compiled interviews, conversations, and oral histories on the island’s history and will present them in a series of six podcasts starting Jan. 22. (For more information on the dual project, go online to www.WashingtonHistory.org/mcneil and www.forgottenprison.org)
It’s an impressive collaboration that heralds a new wave of multimedia museum storytelling.
And it gives a glimpse of McNeil Island’s magnificent heart, neglected too long.