New Exhibit Explores McNeil Island


Sara Thompson, KP News

Tailor Shop, U.S. Penitentiary, McNeil Island, photographic print from glass plate negative, circa 1909, by Asahel Curtis. Two men seated at Singer Sewing Machine Co. treadle sewing machines, making inmate uniforms at the U.S. Penitentiary, McNeil Island, WA. Washington State Historical Society, C1943.42.15951.

For Key Peninsula residents, especially those living on the southeast side of the Key Peninsula, McNeil Island is ever present. But for many, the story of Washington’s own Alcatraz is long-forgotten or never-known. A collaboration between radio station KNKX and the Washington State Historical Society aims to change that situation. 

The exhibit, “Unlocking McNeil’s Past: The Prison, The Place, The People,” opened Jan. 26 at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma and will close May 26. The KNKX six-part weekly podcast “Forgotten Prison” premiered Jan. 22. 

Curator Gwen Whiting said the exhibit was over a year and a half in the making. 

“The exhibit allows us to span past history to the present. It was exciting to work on a project that covers a topic so relevant to our time, and to explore the intersection of local and national issues,” she said. 

Paula Wissel, who co-produced the Forgotten Prison podcast, said, “The podcast is about people and stories, the exhibit is more a biography of place.” 

“Just by making McNeil visible, we are helping people think about incarceration,” said Julianna Verboort, Washington State Historical Society communications director. “By talking about the story of the prison and the fact that geographically, it’s right here, we’re making it very present for people.”

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.

Through artifacts, narratives and historical documentation, the exhibit covers the prison’s nearly 140-year history in the larger context of state and national issues such as immigration, prohibition, the war on drugs, “three strikes you’re out” legislation, and incarceration of those who refused military service—including Japanese-Americans from internment camps. 

The history is told from its start as a territorial prison in 1875 through its 80 years as a federal penitentiary to its end as a state prison. The transition space between each section is scaled to the size of an individual’s cell. Artifacts include reflections of a prisoner written in pencil on toilet paper—the only paper he could access at the time, as well as shackles and the wrought iron entry gates designed by noted architect George Gove, who also designed Lincoln High School and Mount Rainier’s Paradise Inn.

KNKX reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel co-produced “Forgotten Prison.” “We spent a year reporting with the museum for the podcast, and the more I learned about McNeil Island, the more I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about this place,” Alicea said. “The remarkable history of this prison really pushes you to think deeply about how and why we lock people up.”

In a companion exhibition, “Reclaimed,” photographs show how nature and climate have overtaken the facilities during the seven years since the prison closed.

The museum is hosting a conversation about life after incarceration at a symposium, Saturday, March 2, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. The conversation will provide an opportunity to learn about the challenges and opportunities of re-entry after incarceration and will be moderated by community leader and author Omari Amili, who will also discuss his book, “From Crime to the Classroom: How Education Changes Lives.”

See also McNeil Island's Past and Present, KP News, March 2019.