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Unlocking McNeil's Past: The Prison, The Place, The People
January 26 - May 26, 2019

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.

This fascinating exhibition opens January 26, 2019.

Listen to the six part podcast Forgotten Prison created in collaboration between KNKX.org and Washington State History Museum - airing weekly on 88.5 FM beginning Tuesday, January 22.

The Forgotten Prison podcast has been supported through a storytelling grant from Humanities Washington

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Conscientious objector Howard Scott created the parts for this violin by hand using wood scraps found during his incarceration at McNeil Island during World War II. He also made by hand the calipers and board with pegs, used to bend and shape violin pieces. Violin and tools courtesy the Howard and Ruane Scott family. Image courtesy Washington State Historical Society.

During the state prison era, Warden Alice Payne paid special attention to families of people who were incarcerated. John and Sylvia Peterson of Agape Resource Ministry worked with inmates to create this children’s book, explaining what dads who were incarcerated might eat, how they would spend their day, where they live, why people may be incarcerated, and what dads and children could do together during a visit to the prison. The Petersons mortgaged their home to fund printing of the book. Where My Dad Lives collection of Washington State Department of Corrections, image courtesy Washington State Historical Society.

United States Penitentiary, McNeil Island, Washington, Photographic print from glass plate negative, May 25, 1909, by Asahel Curtis. Corner of a single-story stone building. Metal bars cover the windows. At left, a guard tower overlooking Puget Sound. Washington State Historical Society, C1943.42.13580.