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Originally published Friday, November 19, 2010 at 11:04 AM

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McNeil Island prison to close next year

The state Department of Corrections announced Friday that the McNeil Island Corrections Center will close next spring.

Seattle Times staff reporters

McNeil Island history

Jan. 22, 1867: Congress authorizes the establishment of a territorial jail in the Washington Territory. Three years later, the federal government purchases 27.27 acres on McNeil Island for a federal prison.

1875: McNeil Island Prison opens under the direction of the U.S. marshal. By the end of the year the prison holds nine inmates.

1904: McNeil Island is declared an official United States prison.

1976: The federal Bureau of Prisons decides to close the prison. Washington state officials begin exploring the possibility of acquiring the prison to house state prisoners.

1981: The state signs a lease with the federal government granting the state use of the penitentiary. The Washington Department of Corrections begins moving inmates into the newly renamed McNeil Island Corrections Center that same year. Inmates are put to work repairing and improving the facility.

1984: The island is officially deeded to the state of Washington.

2004: The Special Commitment Center opens on McNeil Island after the state Legislature creates the nation's first sex-offender registry and the first long-term treatment center for sexually violent predators.

Nov. 19, 2010: The Department of Corrections announces it will close McNeil Island Corrections Center in spring 2011.

Source: HistoryLink.org, state Department of Corrections,

Seattle Times staff

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The state Department of Corrections announced Friday that it will shutter McNeil Island Corrections Center and shuffle inmates and staff to other prisons to help address a growing budget shortfall.

After the prison closes in April, the state will save about $14 million through the end of 2013, according to budget analysts.

The closure will not impact the Special Commitment Center, which houses sexually violent predators and is run by the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). The center shares the south Puget Sound island with the prison.

McNeil Island has been whittled down in recent years from a 1,200-bed, medium-security facility to just 500 low-risk inmates. After opening 135 years ago, the nation's only island prison is in desperate need of major renovations and has frequently been targeted for closure.

"We need to save some money. The times just keep getting worse," Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said Friday. "It's the last island prison in the nation for a reason. It's just too expensive."

McNeil Island has been home to a prison since 1875, when it was opened as a territorial prison 14 years before Washington became a state.

The federal prison's most famous inmates have included Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz," who was held there from 1909-12; Alvin Karpis, a member of the Depression-era Barker gang, an inmate during the 1960s; and Charles Manson, who was an inmate from 1961-66 for trying to cash a forged government check. Mickey Cohen, the famed Los Angeles gangster and cohort of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, and late Seattle strip-club owner and organized-crime figure Frank Colacurcio Sr. also spent time at the prison.

The federal Bureau of Prisons closed McNeil Island in 1976. Washington state began leasing the facility in 1981, and in 1984 the island was officially deeded to the state, according to the Department of Corrections (DOC).

The Special Commitment Center, located at the island's North Complex, opened in May 2004 after the state Legislature created the nation's first sex-offender registry and the first long-term treatment center for sexually violent predators.

The prison will be closed in two waves. The first unit will be shut in February, and the second unit will be shuttered in April, Vail said. The more than 200 DOC employees who work at the prison might be assigned to other facilities, he said.

To help make up for the loss of inmate beds, DOC will put more inmates at Larch Corrections Center. The Vancouver, Wash.-area prison was scheduled to close early next year, but with McNeil Island's closure it will be operated at full capacity of more than 400 beds, Vail said.

The DOC will save $6.3 million a year by closing McNeil Island, compared with $2 million if it closed Larch.

"The reasons for the closure are obvious and unavoidable with our continuing budget woes," said Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, who has been pushing for the closure of McNeil Island for years. "We can't afford to have inefficiencies like this in our system," said Hargrove, who chairs the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee.

Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents 5,800 DOC employees at 13 prisons, said she's concerned that the closure of McNeil Island will leave the DOC without enough bed space for inmates.

"If they fully close McNeil Island, that's hundreds and hundreds of beds that we're going to lose," she said. "As we're going through other cuts, where they are cutting inmate programs, we're concerned about recidivism rates."

Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, said he's worried the closure will result in job losses, but sees a silver lining: Criminals no longer will be released from the prison onto Pierce County streets.

On Thursday, state officials learned the budget deficit for the rest of the fiscal year had grown by an additional $385 million to more than $900 million. The 2011-2013 deficit is now pegged at about $5.7 billion — roughly 18 percent of the current state budget, which is about $32.3 billion when federal aid is included.

The DOC must reduce spending by nearly $53 million this fiscal year as a result of 6 percent across-the-board cuts due to declining tax revenue.

Earlier this year, the DOC closed Ahtanum View Corrections Center in Yakima and Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women near Spokane, two minimum-security prisons.

For years the state staved off lawmakers' proposals to close McNeil Island amid concerns it would dramatically impact the DOC as well as the DSHS. DOC crews handle security and fire services at both facilities. DOC also runs the ferries used to shuttle prisoners back and forth from the mainland.

There are no plans to close the Special Commitment Center, even though operating it will be more costly without the adjoining prison, according to Thomas Shapley, spokesman for DSHS. Shapley said it would likely be more expensive to relocate the treatment facility than to keep it in its present location.

The prison closure will cost the DSHS an estimated $5.6 million over a two-year period beginning in 2011, according to Shapley.

"Right now, we're trying to assess the impact while maintaining public safety and staff safety as our highest priority," he said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Associated Press.

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