From January 26 to May 26, 2019, the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma is hosting the exhibit Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People. McNeil Island is where many Alaskans were incarcerated during territorial days.
This exhibition presents the larger history of McNeil Island as a place, and the prison that opened there 143 years ago. The prison operated far longer than the better-known Alcatraz island prison. When the state’s correctional center on McNeil Island closed in 2011, it was the last prison in the nation only accessible by air or water.
From its beginnings as a territorial prison through its tenure as a federal and state penitentiary, the story of McNeil illuminates how incarceration in the U.S. has changed over time, as seen through the evolution of the prison facility, itself.
Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People presents history through accounts from prison staff, inmates, and residents of the island. It explores McNeil’s connections to significant state and national events. It examines the evolution of prison practices through territorial, federal, and state lenses, as well as the physical landscape of the prison itself and how its structure reflected these changes. Stories of early settlement and the unique relationship between the prison and its island community are also shared through this exhibition.