Forgotten Prison: A KNKX Public Radio Podcast

Humanities Washington

A special series from KNKX Public Radio and the
Washington State History Museum

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Forgotten Prison premiers on Jan. 22

KNKX Public Radio Forgotten Prison McNeil Island

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The Alcatraz you've never heard of...

The now-abandoned prison on McNeil Island operated for 136 years. Today, McNeil is home to the Special Commitment Center, which houses Washington state's "sexually violent predators." A collaboration between KNKX and the Washington State History Museum, Forgotten Prison tells the stories of inmates, guards and children who grew up on the island. The history of this forgotten place can tell us a lot about how and why we lock people up.

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Chairs stacked in one of the abandon buildings inside the McNeil Island Corrections Center.

episode 1


Episode 1


There are a thousand stories about McNeil Island. And odds are, you haven't heard any of them. Hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explain how we came to abandon one of the country's first federal prisons.

Fencing around the now adandon McNeil Island Corrections Center.

episode 2

Not A Prison

Episode 2

Not A Prison

While the prison on McNeil Island closed in 2011, Washington state still runs the Special Commitment Center there. It's where the state keeps "sexually violent predators" who have served their prison time, but are deemed too dangerous to release into society. Technically, the commitment center is not a prison, but the reality is more complicated.

The newer prison buildings on McNeil Island.

episode 3

Designing Incarceration

Episode 3

Designing Incarceration

The abandoned prison on McNeil Island and its 136-year history can tell us a lot about why we lock people up and how it has changed over time. Hosts Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel explore the decaying structures on the island to learn how the modern American prison system came to be.

A now abandon house on McNeil Island originally home to one of the workers of the McNeil Island Corrections Center.

episode 4

Island Life

Episode 4

Island Life

One obvious thing that makes the McNeil Island Prison unique is that it was on an island. We hear from former guards, inmates, children who grew up on McNeil and descendants of island homesteaders about what it means to be an island prison.

A sign off one of the main roads on McNeil Island alerting others to inmates in the area. Prisoners at other facilities routinely maintain remaining infrastructure on the island today.

episode 5

It Happened Here

Episode 5

It Happened Here

Studying the history of American prisons is really just a study in American history. McNeil shows us how what happens outside of a prison — war, social unrest, disease — can have huge consequences for the inmates inside the prison.

A view of Ketron Island and Steilacoom, Wash. through fencing on McNeil Island. The facility is visible to those in South Puget Sound.

episode 6

Every Prison
Is An Island

Episode 6

Every Prison
Is An Island

McNeil is an especially forgotten prison. But all prisons are forgotten in some way. Taxpayers spend a lot of money to keep them running, but most people don't want to think about prison. We wrestle with why that is.

McNeil Island today

See the current condition of the island and the corrections center.

KNKX Public Radio Humanities Washington Humanities Washington Washington State Historical Society

Visit the exhibit

This podcast was produced in partnership with the Washington State History Museum, including interviews and research from museum staff. Be sure to check out the accompanying exhibit about McNeil Island at the museum in Tacoma, which runs through May 2019.


Hosts and Producers: Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel • Editors: Erin Hennessey and Bethany Denton • Mix Engineer: Bethany Denton • Music: Bill Anschell • Photos and website: Parker Miles Blohm • Logo: Adrian Florez • Digital Content Manager: Kari Plog • Director of Content: Matt Martinez

Special thanks to our partners at the Washington State History Museum: Mary Mikel Stump, Audience Engagement Director, and Gwen Whiting, Lead Curator.

We get financial support from Humanities Washington.

Additional research provided by Dave Beals.

© Pacific Public Media