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The Alcatraz Of The Northwest Faces Downsizing, Possible Closure

Austin Jenkins

It's the Alcatraz of the Northwest. McNeil Island prison in Washington's southern Puget Sound. Thirty years ago, the federal government decided it was too expensive to maintain. So the state took it over. Now, Washington lawmakers are concerned they can't justify the cost either. They've ordered most of the inmates onto the mainland by next year. Correspondent Austin Jenkins takes us to America's last true island prison.


If Alcatraz is "The Rock," then McNeil Island is Eden. It's a seven square mile wildlife refuge with a prison on it. A prison that dates back to the 1870s when Washington was still a territory. If you escape the razor wire, you can run and you can hide, but ask anyone here — guards, inmates — and they'll tell you you'd be crazy to try to swim for it.

Jerry Pinero: "Good luck. It's cold."

Rick Johnson: "That water cold as hell out there, man. Where are you going to go? You jump in that water you're done."

Samuel Coleman: "The water is not fun, you get in there, like I said our last guy got in there he hollered for help."

That was Correctional Officer Jerry Pinero, inmate Rick Johnson and Officer Samuel Coleman. Actually over the past century or so a few inmates have successfully escaped. McNeil has also been home to some iconic criminals. Charles Manson, the Birdman of Alcatraz and, legend has it, Al Capone's brother all did time at McNeil back when it was a federal pen. Famous residents and escape attempts are always part of the lore of island prisons. But the story today is how expensive it is to keep prisoners locked up on an island.

Dick Morgan: "What we call island factor expenses."

Dick Morgan is director of prisons for Washington's Department of Corrections. He says running an island prison is like running a small city. On McNeil there's a fire department, staff housing, a school.

Dick Morgan: "Wastewater treatment plant still has to operate. The water treatment plant still has to operate. "

Not to mention the ferry and barge services. Thirty years ago, there was a fierce debate about whether Washington should take over McNeil from the feds. It even became a major issue in the 1980 governor's race. It was resolved when Republican John Spellman beat Governor Dixy Lee Ray and promptly signed a lease for island with the federal government. Washington taxpayers have been footing the bill ever since — last year it was $50 million. Few questioned the cost until "The Great Recession" hit in 2008. Lawmakers were desperate to cut. And they saw beds sitting empty at a brand new prison in Eastern Washington. Again, Prisons Director Dick Morgan.

Dick Morgan: "Conventional wisdom in corrections has always been that if you build a prison, they will come. And we built Coyote Ridge, but they did not come."

That's because something strange happened. After decades of growth, Washington's inmate population suddenly leveled off. A bunch of factors were at play including a declining crime rate. The numbers are expected to pick up again, but for now the system has more beds than inmates. So this year majority Democrats in Olympia set their sights on McNeil. Senate Democrats went so far as to vote to close the island prison. State Senator Jim Hargrove chairs the Human Services and Corrections committee. He says do the math. One bed on McNeil costs.

Jim Hargrove: "$39,353."

At Coyote Ridge in Eastern Washington it's.

Jim Hargrove: "$23,602. So it costs us two–thirds more per medium security inmate on McNeil Island than in a new prison."

Hargrove estimates closing McNeil could save the state more than $140 million over the next decade or so.

Jim Hargrove: "If we make a decision to maintain inefficient prisons, we're making a decision to not be able to fund some of the things that prevent crime."

But Democrats in the Washington House said no to the Senate's closure plan. So earlier this year, the two chambers hammered out a compromise. McNeil Island would downsize from a 1,200 inmate medium–security prison to a minimum–security work camp with about a quarter of the inmates. The legislature also gave the Department of Corrections this task: search out a location along the Interstate 5 corridor to replace McNeil when the inmate population rebounds. But not everyone supports this move to the mainland.

Tami Green: "I just don't see us building another prison. I don't see it happening. Maybe I'm naive. But I just don't see it happening."

State Representative Tami Green is a Democrat whose district includes McNeil Island. She argues it's the perfect place for a prison in population–dense Western Washington. She thinks an island prison still gives the public peace of mind. Especially when you consider what else is on McNeil Island. Washington's Special Commitment Center. It's a lockup for sexually violent predators deemed too dangerous to return to society.

Tami Green: "You know the whole idea about the island prison. There is a perceived and a real feeling of safety with having a prison on an island. And we're not going to be moving the Special Commitment Center."

Green hopes this is a temporary idling of McNeil and that the prison can ramp back up when the inmate population starts to grow again. Whatever happens to McNeil, there's broad agreement that operating it as a 256–bed work camp is not a long–term solution. In fact, it's highly inefficient. The cost per inmate at McNeil is projected to skyrocket from $108 a day now to $180 a day. That's more than it costs to house inmates at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla. More even than the price of caring for chronically ill inmates.

Sound: [Door shuts.]

A heavy metal door thuds open and I step into Housing Unit B on McNeil. The Department of Corrections has already started to move inmates off the island. But in B Unit, offenders like Rick Johnson are still waiting to find out where they'll be transferred. Johnson has 26 years left on his sentence for second degree murder. He tells me he's been locked up in prisons all over the state.

Austin Jenkins: "What do you think of this island prison, the last one in the nation?"

Rick Johnson: "To me it was cool, I don't know why they're closing it. It's alright to me."

Austin Jenkins: "Well, they say it's expensive to run, they've got to have ferries."

Rick Johnson: "Ya but, I know gas prices and all that is high, but you're taking people away from their families."

You hear that a lot from the inmates here. They say a 20 minute ferry ride to McNeil sure beats a trip over the Cascade Mountains for their wives and kids. Plus, they like the views and sea air here. The prison staff is also sad to go. Turns out not everyone is dying to escape this island prison.

I'm Austin Jenkins reporting.

© Copyright 2010, Northwest News Network

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