McNeil Island: Hidden heart of the South Sound

Photo taken in University Place captures sun setting behind McNeil Island.
Photo taken in University Place captures sun setting behind McNeil Island. Staff file, 2004

Re: “Center for sexual predators under fire,” (TNT, 11-2).

I don’t have anything in particular against child molesters and serial rapists and such – like the 252 convicted sexually violent predators reported to be at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. It’s just the way I was raised. Hate the sin and not the sinner.

Though I must admit after reading the headline about the SCC coming under fire, I was kind of secretly hoping it might be referring to some errant AC-130 Gunship flying out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord mistakenly opening up on the center.

Cruel as that thought might be, I’m starting to seriously believe something as outrageous as that is going to be what it takes to finally kick all those “special” predators off that lovely isle in the heart of the South Sound. And what’s with the Department of Social and Health Services putting a CEO in charge of the SCC? A more prosaic title, like “general manager,” wouldn’t work as well? Do other states have predator CEOs, too?

I’ve been wondering about what would become of beautiful McNeil Island ever since I first saw it serenely floating in the South Sound as a young man.

It was shortly after I was discharged from the Navy in Bremerton in 1976; I was 26. It was the first time I ever heard McNeil Island referred to as the “the Alcatraz of Puget Sound.” As Alcatraz once did, McNeil hosted a federal prison.

By then I’d already seen “The Rock” in the San Francisco Bay. And comparing piddly Alcatraz Island, at 22 acres, to the more than 4,400 acres of McNeil Island is like equating a mouse to an elephant.

Know what became of “The Rock”? It’s now a popular tourist destination for folks visiting the San Francisco area. It’s run by the highly respected National Park Service. You know, the same folks who run Mount Rainier National Park.

Compare that with how Washington has blessed us South Sounders – and every other taxpayer in the Evergreen State – with its use of McNeil Island: a multimillion-dollar abandoned prison complex and a certifiable world-class boondoggle. For predators, it’s a paradise preserve; for the public, it is off limits.

Perhaps most poignant of all, McNeil Island seems heart-shaped to me when viewed upon a map or marine chart. Though it’s a rather broken one, as if responding to all its years of ill treatment.

Shelton resident Bill Barker, a retired postal worker, is writing a historical narrative of the South Puget Sound.