Parts of McNeil Island, which was a prison for more than 130 years, could be purchased by the state in an effort to gain control over the land’s future and remove looming pressure from the federal government regarding the now-vacant corrections facility.
The twist in the future of the empty Pierce County prison came in a recent work session with Olympia lawmakers and federal officials.
“It’s a real complex enigma,” said State Sen. Mike Carrell (R) – Stellacoom, “We have to do something to make sure we have legal standing to stay on the island.”
The McNeil Island Corrections Center was closed by Washington lawmakers in 2011 as a cost-cutting measure. The Special Commitment Center for sexual predators, also on McNeil, remains open and is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Washington began leasing the McNeil Island prison from the federal government in 1981. It was “cold closed” two years ago to save money, meaning no effort would be made to maintain the property. State Sen. Carrell, who opposed closing the prison, said the move has ended up costing more taxpayer dollars and violates the federal lease.
“If the prison disappears and becomes too diminished in value,” he explained, “The federal government may tell us to remove the Special Commitment Center.”
Buying the McNeil Island leases would involve only the prison property. There is no idea of cost or likelihood it will actually happen. The Governor’s proposed budget includes $500,000 to restore parts of the infrastructure.
Other options include reopening the prison, which would cost at least $80 million, according to State Sen. Jeannie Darneille (D) – Tacoma.
“If the choices were: operate a prison on the island or purchase the lots,” she said, “I think (buying) would be a much cheaper option.”
State Sen. Darneille suggested buying the leases could allow the state more freedom to determine how to use the land. McNeil Island could be used for tourism or movies, she proposed. State Sen. Carrell said in ten years, it would be needed as a prison again.
So far, no bills regarding a purchase have been discussed in Olympia.