McNeil Island, roughly 7 square miles, has been owned by the government for most of its modern history and has long been an island of intrigue and untold stories. The island lies just north of Anderson Island in Carr Inlet, off the Key Peninsula of South Puget Sound.
From 1875 to 1981, the island was a federal penitentiary, which housed some famous inmates like Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” from 1909 to 1912; Alvin Karpis, kidnapper, bank robber, and the FBI’s Public Enemy No. 1, captured in 1936; and the infamous Charles Manson held at McNeil during the 1960’s.
In the mid-1800’s pioneers on the island had established homes, a school, post office, and cemetery. Even a beekeeping operation was on the island. By 1937, the federal government had purchased all of the land parcels on McNeil Island and residents were compelled to leave. At one point the prison was somewhat self-sustaining with local agriculture products, including a dairy farm, managed and operated by inmates.
In 1981 the federal government turned the island over to the Washington State Department of Corrections, and the prison was renamed to McNeil Island Corrections Center. A small passenger ferry ran from Steilacoom on the mainland to McNeil Island every two hours for registered visitors and supplies. It was during the 1980’s that we almost took this ferry by accident. Touring the South Sound by motorcycle, we were on our way to Anderson Island. When we stepped up to what we thought was the correct booth to purchase a ferry ticket, we were told “it’s a 15-minute ride over, and 15 years to get back;” oops, wrong line. In 2011, the prison closed due to the high cost of operating the prison, which once held over a thousand residents. At the time of closing, McNeil was the only prison left in North America that was accessible only by boat or air.
So why is McNeil Island still off limits to the general public and recreational vessels? The island now serves as the State’s primary Special Commitment Center (SCC), where sexually violent predators are indefinitely committed for treatment. Most people are surprised to learn that even after offenders have served their time in prison, chronic offenders can be civilly committed and detained for the rest of their life; the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island serves this purpose.
For public safety, boaters must stay off shore at least 100 yards from McNeil Island at all times. A harbor on the northwest side of the island, called Still Harbor, looks inviting as an anchorage, but it too is off limits; in fact, anchoring anywhere near the island is not permitted. Boaters may circumnavigate the island, but must maintain the 100-yard limit off shore as mandated by State law.