McNeil Island: Washington’s own Prison Island

McNeil Island is a small island located in Puget Sound, Washington. It was home to a federal prison that has a long and complex history, and has played host to some of the most infamous criminals in American history.

McNeil Prison Island
McNeil Prison Island in Puget Sound

The island was named after Captain Henry McNeil, a sea captain who discovered the island in 1841. At the time, the island was inhabited by the Nisqually Native American tribe, who used the island for hunting and fishing. In 1853, the United States government established a military reservation on the island, which was later used as a quarantine station for immigrants.

In 1875, the island was designated as a federal prison, and it was used to house a variety of different inmates, including military prisoners, Native American prisoners, and civilian prisoners. Over the years, the prison has undergone several renovations and expansions, and it is now one of the largest federal prisons in the United States.

One of the most famous inmates at McNeil Island was Al Capone, the notorious gangster who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion in 1931. Capone was housed in a special section of the prison known as “The Rock,” which was reserved for high-profile inmates. He spent four years on the island before being transferred to another prison.

Read about the only man legally hanged in Vancouver, Washington.

Another infamous inmate at McNeil Island was Charles Manson, the cult leader who was convicted of orchestrating the murder of several people, including actress Sharon Tate, in 1969. Manson was sentenced to life in prison and was initially housed at California’s San Quentin State Prison. However, he was later transferred to McNeil Island, where he spent the majority of his time behind bars.

Another notable inmate at McNeil Island was Robert Stroud, better known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Stroud was a convicted murderer who became famous for his work with birds while he was incarcerated at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. He was eventually transferred to McNeil Island, where he spent the final years of his life before his death in 1963.

In the 1960s and 1970s, McNeil Island gained a reputation as a “reformatory” prison, where inmates were given the opportunity to participate in rehabilitation programs and vocational training. The prison also implemented a “prisoner worker” program, which allowed inmates to work in various capacities around the island, such as in the kitchen, the laundry, and the maintenance department.

However, the prison has also faced criticism over the years for its treatment of inmates. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were numerous reports of abuse and mistreatment of inmates, including the use of excessive force by guards and inadequate medical care. These issues have been addressed in recent years, and the prison has implemented various reforms to improve conditions for inmates.

Despite these challenges, McNeil Island has played a significant role in the history of the state of Washington. It has served as a quarantine station, a military reservation, and a federal prison, and it has housed some of the most infamous criminals in American history, including Al Capone, Charles Manson, and Robert Stroud. While the island may have a dark past, it has also been a place where inmates have been given the opportunity to reform and turn their lives around.

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