McNeil Island Corrections Center may face closure

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Should the state close prisons to try and narrow the $9 billion budget gap?

The Senate’s budget proposal targets the McNeil Island Corrections Center for extinction. The site costs roughly $49 million to operate per year, and has a higher per bed cost than any other state corrections facility.

“I like working here,” says Ron Van Boening, McNeil’s superintendent. “It’s an anxious time for myself and my staff here; don’t know what the future holds.”

Van Boening says the facility, which was run by the federal government until 1976, is in good shape. There are several newer, modern era cell blocks, but there are also a handful of buildings from the early 1900s.

State Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail, a former McNeil Island superintendent, hopes state lawmakers allow him to make the decisions on what to close or not to close. He also believes the facility, while expensive, is useful and geographically helpful.  

Vail also recognizes he’ll most likely face cuts whether he likes it or not.

“The net result is fewer staff tomorrow than we have today,” he said. “That’s one of the ways we save money; the offenders go to other beds around the state.”

The McNeil Island Corrections Center spans 89 acres and was opened by the federal government in 1875.  Over the course of time, inmates included Charles Manson and the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud.  Washington State started using it in 1981, and the U.S. government deeded the site to the state in 1984.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler says while the facility’s closure was not part of the House plan, she could be convinced to do otherwise.

Pearse Edwards, spokesman for Gov. Chris Gregoire, says McNeil Island fills a need for the state, and “there is not a lot of support” in the governor’s office for closing state prisons.

The Special Commitment Center for Sex Offenders on McNeil Island is a separate facility run by DSHS.  No lawmaker has suggested closing that facility.



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