Mon, January 21, 2019

Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People

In 2019, the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma hosted the exhibit Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People. McNeil Island is where many Alaskans were incarcerated during territorial days.

The exhibition presented 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 presented history through accounts from prison staff, inmates, and residents of the island. It explored McNeil’s connections to significant state and national events. It examined 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 were also shared through this exhibition.

Listen to the six part podcast Forgotten Prison created in collaboration between and Washington State History Museum.

The Forgotten Prison podcast was supported through a storytelling grant from Humanities Washington.