My Childhood on Inmate Island

Growing up on a remote prison compound made for an oddball upbringing, but the hardest thing I ever had to do was leave.

My Childhood on Inmate Island

In January of 2011 I received an email invitation to attend the official closing ceremonies for McNeil Island. I wish I could say that getting an invitation to the closing of my hometown was the weirdest thing that had ever happened to me, but I think that award would have to go to locking up my pool toys with a bike chain as a kid so that they couldn’t be used during an escape attempt.

I grew up next to the last island prison in the United States, accessible only by air or boat. (Whenever I say this New Yorkers are quick to point out Riker’s Island, but they have a bridge.) As a teen I took a ferry to school alongside officers going to and from work, and inmates heading to and from freedom.

In addition to around 1,500 inmates the island was also home to about forty families, all of whom had at least one member considered to be “essential personnel.” People always assume it was my Dad who worked for the prison—which he did, working his way through the ranks as a correctional officer until he was promoted to upper management. But my Mom also worked there as an investigator. She kept narcotics out of the facility and had access to a drug-sniffing dog. We didn’t get away with much as teens.

In 2010 the state of Washington made the decision to close down the McNeil Island Correctional Center due to budget cuts, as running an island prison is way more expensive when everything has to be either flown or floated in. Because the facility was closing, this also meant the island residents were forced to move and abandon their homes. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. The island was home to a federal facility until 1936, when all of the civilian residents were made to leave. Even the cemetery was closed, the dead bodies exhumed and reburied on the mainland. In 1981, when the facility made its transition from a federal to state prison, legend has it the angry displaced residents stole all the light bulbs and threw motorcycles over a cliff and into the ocean rather than let them be used by incoming state employees.

As kids playing in the woods, my sister and I would find traces of the past all over the place. There was a short length of railroad track from a train that used to carry lumber across the island. A square of daffodils marked where a settler’s house once stood. There was a rotting dock on the far side of the island that was black and half-sunk into the water and had me imagining pirate ships.

Returning to the island as an adult in 2011 to explore it one last time, I knew we wouldn’t get a chance to go through the woods. But I was surprised at how much freedom we were given—the departing superintendent loaned my Dad a car, and we were allowed to drive around unchaperoned. Our first stop was Lieutenants’ Row—four houses arranged on a hillside that were built during the days of the feds and meant to be inhabited by the prison’s four lieutenants.

The island was supposed to have been empty for a month but every door we tried was unlocked. The heat was still on in the houses; the lights worked. There were books and toys left in the homes, boats and junked cars in driveways. Anything people couldn’t be bothered to move was left behind.

We moved on to the Center Hill neighborhood, which had a mixture of state and federal-built homes arranged around a central park. Growing up it was the part of the island that felt the most normal, like a suburban neighborhood. Now it felt like walking around the set of a horror movie.

Next stop on the tour was the old Warden’s House, completed in 1932. It was designed by Tacoma architect George Gove, who also designed several buildings at the Western State Hospital for the Insane and the Communications Hall at the University of Washington, and was one of four architects who designed the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

The house where my family spent most of our ten years on the
island was fairly isolated, surrounded by pine trees and built into a hillside facing Eagle Island. It was built on the site of the “Ward House,” a settler’s home that had been damaged by an earthquake, struck by lightning and then torn down. While the house was new, the outbuildings were older—a large barn, workshop and root cellar that I’d always been afraid to enter when I was younger because of the spiders.

We’d moved off the island almost nine years ago, but my sister and I found our old dollhouse in one of the outbuildings. We decided to leave it there.