The eagles will remain, as will the echoes of those who served – as inmates or employees – at the last island prison in America.
The bright lights that lit the gray walls through nearly 50,000 nights at McNeil Island Corrections Center will dim, and the hard sounds of steel doors slamming shut will disappear. Grass will grow free where men once paid for their crimes.
The prison closes today after 135 years as both a federal and state correctional facility.
Here are the stories of five men who share memories of their days at the Alcatraz of Puget Sound.
LARRY VESS:THE LAST COUNSELOR
Larry Vess walks past an idling bus and into the darkened entrance of Cellblock A. He heads down a corridor lined with men sitting on benches. They wear shapeless orange jumpsuits. Their hands are cuffed, their waists wrapped by chains.
Some of these inmates silently nod. Others mutter Vess’ name as he passes into a small, dingy room where the prisoners, standing with arms outstretched, are strip-searched before being transferred.
It’s standard operating procedure, for the few corrections officers left, to check for weapons and contraband. After a short bus ride and a 20-minute ferry crossing to Steilacoom, the 14 inmates will be moved to other prisons in the state.
They are among the last to leave.
Vess remains. He came to McNeil in 1983 as a prison guard and spent years rising to the rank of sergeant. Every working day he walked McNeil’s pavement and climbed three-story cellblock stair towers, lugging a 3-pound ring of keys and a heavy two-way radio. The wear and tear – prompting two knee replacements and multiple shoulder surgeries – forced him to take another job.
About a dozen years ago, he became a counselor with a desk, a small office and the power to make an inmate’s life either honey or hell.
Based on an inmate’s behavior, Vess helped to decide his work and training opportunities, perks, privileges or punishments.
“We’re responsible for every aspect of their life when they come here,” Vess said.
“Some inmates are a little cocky when they first come in. We burn that out of them, along with the notion that they’re free to do whatever they want but not be held accountable.”
While short of stature, Vess is long on personality, confidence and opinion. Don’t get him started on closing McNeil.
“It’s a huge waste of taxpayer money,” he said, shaking his head and noting the upgraded concrete cellblocks and improved infrastructure done in the 1990s at a cost of $90 million.
On this day, Vess was wearing an extra pair of hats – as both prison historian and tour guide for journalists from CNN and The News Tribune.
He led them down the deserted “Boulevard,” the concrete and asphalt artery that once carried guards, prison vehicles and tightly scheduled pulses of hundreds of inmates who were moved in five-minute intervals on their way to cellblocks, the exercise yard or a job with prison industries.
Vess said that today, his last day, will be a mix of nostalgia and taking care of business. He’ll oversee a last transfer of inmates off the prison island via the “chain bus” in the morning.
His next assignment, starting at 7:30 a.m. today, will be as a counselor at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor.
“I knew working on this island I was working on something special. I raised a family. I lived a lifetime,” Vess said.
GARY KITSCH: THE JOHN WAYNE OF MCNEIL ISLAND
For nearly 30 years, Gary Kitsch worked with inmates in prison industries, helping them run the orchard, farm, pig farm and meat plant.
He spent most of the last decade managing the furniture manufacturing, finishing and assembly plant, where inmates turned out tables, chairs and desks for schools, the state liquor board and other agencies.
A few choice pieces found their way to the offices of the prison superintendent and the governor.
Tall and lanky, Kitsch brightened as he recounts his cowboy days driving cattle with a raggedy bunch of inmates back when the prison raised its own beef, pigs and chickens.
“I was the John Wayne of McNeil Island,” he joked. “We had some of the best cattle drives and some of the worst ones, too.”
One drive resembled a prison break on the hoof, when inmates paused to check out a pair of bald eagles and allowed 500 particularly willful cattle to rumble toward the main prison gate near the visitors entrance.
Kitsch galloped ahead, dismounted and waved his arms and hat to head off the cattle near Guard Tower 1. Then he herded them to the beach and past the warden’s office.
“I told the inmates they needed to pay more attention to the cattle drive and less to nature,” Kitsch recalled. Now the cowboy is helping oversee the removal of equipment from furniture Plant 2.
The 51,000-square-foot facility had become nearly an empty cave. Still there was Kitsch’s tool corral, a system of painted tool silhouettes on peg boards.
He used the boards to ensure the tools inmates used were returned to their proper places and that no prisoner left for the day with a screwdriver or chisel that could be used as a weapon.
Now that his career is winding down, Kitsch said he’s proud of the work ethic he helped instill in some of the prisoners. He likes to think that maybe he helped them reintegrate into society on the mainland.
“McNeil Island has always had the reputation as a good place to spend a career or do time,” he said. “I’ve had a great career.”
DAVE SNOW: ‘FIGHT NIGHT’ AT CELLBLOCK 2
A hulking shadow falls on a nearby wall through dim orange light as the door to Cellblock 2 opens.
It’s Dave Snow, a 51-year-old corrections officer from Lakewood who, like many other staff members, was recently drawn back to the prison to connect with an earlier era.
“It’s my last look at history,“ Snow said as he wandered through the three-tiered cellblock. Peeling paint covered most walls, and musty air carried the scent of emptiness.
Occasionally Snow paused and sat inside one of the 5-by-7-foot cells to reflect and remember.
The cellblock, built in 1907 and stiffened by iron bars and arched windows, housed the worst of the worst of federal and then state prisoners until being closed in the early 1990s.
Snow was drawn to a cell whose yellowed walls still showed the scratched rows of an inmate marking time in the “Hole.”
But most of his memories revolve around “Fight Night.”
Using the segregation unit’s dark spaces, stairwells and cells, guards in McNeil’s Emergency Reaction Training Academy trained for trouble – for riots, cell extractions and prisoners on the loose.
“I can still see the smoke and feel the burning of pepper spray in the air,” Snow said.
In his mind he once again heard the sounds of violent struggles between “inmates” – guards role-playing their parts – fighting with officers in riot gear: gas masks, helmets, adrenaline and shields.
“It was very physical,” recalled the 6-foot, 265-pound Snow, who likened it to an intense football game.The training paid off in 2008, when a riot broke out in F-unit over a concern with food.
“I was involved in 13 back-to-back cell extractions (of inmates) and was the shield guy for six of them,” Snow said.
Snow said he will miss the camaraderie and friendships he developed with guards on the third shift, and with island wildlife of the non-inmate kind.
“Like clockwork, at 6 p.m. a bald eagle would fly past me in Tower 3, along the shore to the marine department,” Snow said.
The eagle, looking for dinner, would sit atop a piling and survey the various promises of Puget Sound.
MICHAEL CHRISTIAN: ‘IT’S LIKE A SKELETON PRISON’
At 28, Michael Christian, knows that he has wasted much of his life. The father of two is serving 5½ years for identity theft.
As the prison slowly dies, the Bonney Lake man’s life has collapsed into a sort of “Ground Hog Day existence” in which he remains confined to his cellblock room and small exercise yard.
“It’s like a skeleton prison,” Christian said. “When we used to be able to sit in the big yard, we could see freedom right across the water. It would give us a sense of hope.”
Now Christian, sporting tattoos and closely cropped hair, can release pent-up energy only by pumping rusty 75-pound dumbbells skyward or by reading in his cell.
“We’re ready to move on,” he said.
Christian likely will be one of the last inmates to leave the island.
He’s an inmate member of the McNeil Island Fire Department, which will stay on the island, possibly into early summer, to help fight fires and protect the Special Commitment Center and its sex offenders.
“We train just like a real fire department, maybe even harder,” said Christian, who has learned firefighting, search-and-rescue and other life-saving skills.
His possible parole in August 2012 is more than a year away, but he’s focused on his future and the future of those he loves.
“I want to be out and be a good father for my kids, be a family man so they can grow up right and not end up like me,” he said.
DICK MORGAN: THE LAST SUPERINTENDENT
After 35 years with the state Department of Corrections, Dick Morgan thought he was ready to retire. He’d risen to the upper echelon, serving as superintendent at Clallam Bay and Walla Walla before being named director of Washington State Prisons in 2008.
He retired in July 2010 and with his wife, Landa, moved back to Walla Walla, where his family roots run deep. Morgan’s late father and grandfather both worked at the penitentiary there.
But forces were gathering against any fishing trips or long siestas.
After Morgan’s son, a guard at Walla Walla, and his daughter got layoff notices on consecutive days, he feared he might need to support three families and two mortgages.
State budget deficits prompted the Legislature to shutter McNeil, and the Corrections Department needed someone to help close the island prison and deal with relocating a community of guards and their families.
“It was going to be a complicated and sensitive process,” Morgan said, “and I thought – I have another good year or so in me.”
He took the job.
He knew he’d be presiding over a feeding frenzy akin to vultures picking the carcass of the historic prison. He’d seen it before during the closure of Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women in Medical Lake. Staff members from other facilities came in with tape measures and started measuring desks and chairs – while occupied.
“It’s like the undertaker measuring you for your suit,” he said. “We didn’t want that happening at McNeil. I emailed all the superintendents to back off sending people over here on shopping sprees.”
Since then, wave after wave of salvage teams from Shelton, Monroe, Cedar Creek, Clallam Bay and more have come ashore at McNeil. They came seeking bakery ovens, industrial washers and drying machines, furniture-making equipment, mattresses, lockers, toilets and sinks. Away went the locks on the segregation unit doors, three-hole punches, clipboards, plastic garbage cans, prison fencing and razor wire.
As for the 3,300-pound chapel bell, nobody is in a rush to move it.
Morgan’s office, graced by a view of Mount Rainier and Puget Sound, is mostly empty. An enormous cherrywood desk, made by inmate craftsmen, is uncluttered.
“I’ll be back in Walla Walla this summer reading about the raging debate over the future of McNeil Island,” Morgan said. “Is it going to be a wildlife preserve that nobody can step foot on or a casino?
Whatever the future holds, McNeil’s past pretty much ends today. April first. April Fools’ Day. Morgan – like the rest of the staff before him – will board the island ferry for the last time. And all that will remain of the island penitentiary that once was called the “prison without walls” will be memories carried on the currents of time.
Dean J. Koepfler: email@example.com
Staff writer C.R. Roberts contributed to this report.