McNeil Island, the 'prison without walls,' closing due to budget cuts

In the federal prison system, Alcatraz was the bad cop; McNeil Island was the good cop.

The San Francisco prison had the guards with tommy guns, the no-talking rules, the force-feeding and the infamous “hole” for solitary confinement.

McNeil – which is closing Friday because of budget cuts – was 700 miles north in ethereally beautiful Puget Sound. With its views of Mount Rainier and eagles soaring overhead, it was the fed’s “prison without walls,” a place where, if a man obeyed the rules and worked hard, he could learn a trade, improve his mind and become a useful member of society.

“We believe that the men have been punished by the court,” said Fred Wilkinson, McNeil’s superintendent from 1950 to 1954 and later a leader in the national Federal Prison Industries Program.

“They came here as punishment,” Wilkinson said, “not for punishment.”

Not all wardens at McNeil were so optimistic about reforming criminals. Hard-liners in the system derisively referred to Wilkinson as “Friendly Fred.”

But generally speaking, throughout McNeil Island’s 135-year history – including the years since 1981, when it’s been run by Washington state – the prison has maintained a kinder, gentler approach, one based on the belief that hard work and nurturing the inner man can reduce recidivism.

When the prison closes, that will be its legacy: that criminal justice is about rehabilitation, not retribution.


When the Washington Territorial Penitentiary opened on McNeil Island in1875, putting inmates to work was more about survival than ideology.

The first cell house was completed that year, but in May, when the first three prisoners arrived (two for selling liquor to Indians and the third for robbery), the little compound had no support facilities.

There was no guard quarters, kitchen or storehouse.

Supplies had to come by rowboat from Steilacoom, three miles away, which enforced self-sufficiency.

In the early years, prisoners were put to work clearing land for a farm and orchard and cutting firewood for warmth and cooking. They grew their own food and raised chickens, ducks, pigs and dairy cattle.

In those first few decades, the prisoners literally built the facility as it expanded, including not only the second and third cell houses but also the wharf and the prison boats.

They made their own bricks. In a prison tailor shop, they sewed their own clothing: loose fitting black and white striped uniforms that resembled pajamas.


Using prisoners for labor was hardly new at the time. One reason for establishing a federal prison system – which began with McNeil – was to keep states from contracting out prisoners as a replacement for slavery.

What was different at McNeil was the emphasis on teaching trades and the humanity of the approach. By the turn of the century, prisoners at McNeil worked just six hours a day, five days a week. Weekends were for recreation.

In 1912, prisoners scratched out a makeshift baseball diamond on the prison grounds and, when the weather was good, played games on Friday afternoons – a tradition that lasted through the century.

“Some very interesting and enlivening games were played,” Warden O.P. Halligan wrote in his annual report in 1913, “the prisoners manifesting true American spirit and interest in this wholesome weekly diversion.”

Saturday afternoons, prisoners went to the beach, a privilege, Halligan reported, that was “highly prized and appreciated by all prisoners who enjoy salt-water bathing.”

By 1915, McNeil had a prison library with 1,775 volumes – plus a bookbinding and repair shop to keep the books in good shape.

There was an inmate choir and, beginning that year, “moving picture shows” with films lent by a Seattle company.

A five-man “orchestra” made up of prisoners played at the movies, at church and during dinner on Sundays and holidays.

From 1924 on, the prison had its own inmate-staffed newspaper, The Island Lantern.


During the Great Depression, the prison farm, which had always produced most of the prison food, was expanded to industrial scale.

McNeil was a pioneer in the experimental “Factories with Fences” program, intended to alleviate inmate idleness and prepare them for productive careers when they got out.

The federal government acquired the entire 7-square-mile island in 1935 and, as the prison population topped 1,000, set up other industries, including a shipyard and a cannery.

During World War II, industrial activity soared.

Prisoners at McNeil built and repaired military patrol boats, tugboats and barges. They manufactured cargo nets for the Navy and stripped insulation from miles of wire salvaged from ships destroyed at Pearl Harbor.

The industrial training programs continued through the Korean War, with prisoners learning trades in agriculture, electronics, machining and diesel mechanics.

“Our aim is to return the men to society better qualified to meet life than when they came,” prison farm manager Joe Yates said in 1957.

“We’ve found carrying around a club is not good,” Yates said. “Responsibility is the guiding principle. We treat them like people, and they respond in kind.”


The industrial work programs at McNeil fell victim to their own successes.

The more the inmates produced, the more private businesses and labor unions fought them, believing they competed unfairly with private enterprise.

In the 1960s, the philosophy of prisoner rehabilitation began to veer away from work therapy and toward a “medical model,” characterized by substance-abuse programs and inmate discussion groups. Prison guards became “correctional officers.”

At McNeil, music was considered therapy: the prison had a piano and several practice rooms for individuals and groups: jazz combos, western bands and Dixieland ensembles.

McNeil is where Charles Manson learned to play guitar.

A growing interest in prisoner rights and social justice led to increased participation by the greater Tacoma community. Hundreds of people took the ferry out from Steilacoom to help with drug-treatment programs, education, recreation and religious services

The Island Lantern reported that, during the late 1960s, local community members made more than 9,000 visits a year to participate in various program activities.


By the time the state took over at McNeil in 1981, the medical model, too, had begun to lose favor. Prison populations soared; crimes became more violent, sentences longer.

Yet McNeil continued to be a center for rehabilitative efforts: A 200-bed state program begun there in 1993 was appropriately titled the “Work Ethic Program.”

And McNeil Island’s Special Commitment Center, which provides mental health treatment for sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences – and which will remain after the prison closes – is regarded as extreme in the belief that criminals can be cured.

McNeil was never alone in rehabilitative movements, but more often than not, it was on the forward crest of the waves.

The reason, some have supposed, arose from the island’s breathtaking geography, which might have reinforced compassionate impulses, in staff members and prisoners alike.

“Some of the staff say the scenery, remoteness and sky-land-and-water views from McNeil, plus the climate, inoculates the convicts with a deep spiritual feeling that quickly, especially to the sensitive ones, turns their whole lives away from their clouded past and into a new channel,” wrote Lester Pierce in his 1970 book “McNeil, History of a Federal Prison.”

There’s no doubt that is true, said Belinda Stewart, McNeil’s first woman warden, who ran the prison from 1994 to 1999.

Stewart, who was raised in Oklahoma, remembers the island’s natural beauty as an almost spiritual presence.

“I saw incredible sunrises and sunsets,” she said. “I saw bald eagles for the first time. The views sometimes brought tears to my eyes.”

“The environment helped to make McNeil a very calming place,” Stewart said. “The inmates lived with that, and so did the staff.”

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