West of Tacoma within the Puget Sound, one island sits relatively abandoned - or at least, it might seem from the outside. Visiting the island is prohibited without special permission, although some urban explorers sometimes seek out an adventure under the cover of darkness. This is McNeil Island, a place with a long history as Washington State's home for "undesirables," convicted criminals who needed to be separated from society.

The early years of McNeil Island

In 1853, Ezra Meeker - before his fame at growing hops or becoming the first mayor of Puyallup - settled a homestead on McNeil Island. The island had previously been named after Hudson Bay Company captain William Henry McNeill, although it had been used by the Steilacoom people long before settlers arrived. The island had plentiful resources, but travel to nearby Steilacoom was relatively far and made the homestead isolating. Meeker eventually left the island behind for the mainland.

Homesteaders on McNeil Island
Public Domain. Department of Corrections, McNeil Island Corrections Center Photograph Collection, 1855-2010.

Almost 20 years later, in 1870, the U.S. government "purchased" 27 acres of land (other records indicate this land was donated) on the island along its east coat. Building began soon after, and McNeil Island Penitentiary was officially open for service in 1875. Over the years, the federal government continued to add land to the prison, increasing its size from a meager 27 acres to over 2,300 acres by 1940. In its time as a federal prison, it housed Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud and Charles Manson.

In 1976, the U.S. government declared the facility obsolete and began to evacuate it. Washington State, however, needed more prison space and began to lease it in 1981. The prison continued to operate as a state facility under the name McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) until it officially closed in 2011. However, one segment of the island that began operations in 1998 - the Special Commitment Center - remains open to this day, deep at the island's heart.

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Where do sex offenders go when their prison time is over?

The Special Commitment Center is a special facility that is not a prison, despite its requirement for total confinement on McNeil Island. Instead, it's a place where level III sex offenders are sent by the court to be "civilly committed" after their prison term is finished. These sex offenders then begin their life as a resident of the Special Commitment Center to receive extensive treatment.

As described by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services:

Treatment helps residents develop skills needed to cope more appropriately, while at the same time helping them to build protective factors such as healthy relationships, job skills, and hobbies. The development of these skills and protective factors increases residents’ sense of self, competence, and motivation to continue to transform their lives in positive ways.

The goal of the SCC is to help sex offenders overcome the psychological challenges that have led individuals to become abusive and harmful so that they can eventually reintegrate into society safely. This remains controversial among the public, although compassion and understanding are growing.

Is McNeil Island just a home for sexual predators then?

Yes, and no: it depends on how you look at the people living in the care of McNeil's Special Commitment Center.

Yes, the committed residents there are convicted sex offenders who have a high likelihood of reoffending. By their very crimes - which are not excused by the rehabilitation system - they are considered sexual predators.

Satellite view of the Special Correctional Center on McNeil Island
Satellite view of the Special Correctional Center on McNeil Island. via Google

But no, McNeil Island isn't just a comfortable resort for sex offenders paid for by tax dollars. Doctors, scientists, and the state view these people as humans deserving of help, despite the complex nature of their place in society.

An article from Time Magazine delves deep into the therapy and processes that these sex offenders undergo while in treatment, while also considering the impact it has on victims. Ultimately it lands on the complexity of understanding and treating sexual abuse and its victims in our society - a problem we only acknowledged decades ago and are still studying to this day.

In the meantime,  some of the most troubled minds of Washington remain hidden out of sight at the heart of McNeil Island, where we can choose to forget about them and trust they will harm no one else.

Sexual Violence in Washington State

Sexual violence and sexual assault are, sadly, types of crime we may never see disappear from society. With the stigma and shame surrounding victims, it's important to be aware of what the statistics are in our community. Let's look at the official statistics for sexual violence in Washington state.

Gallery Credit: Jaime Skelton

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