As prisoners are moved off McNeil Island by the hundreds, the island's tiny group of voluntary residents also awaits an exodus.
Forty of McNeil Island Corrections Center’s employees and their families live on the island, in state-subsidized housing that lets them avoid a daily ferry ride from Steilacoom.
Over the years, residents have built a community and sent their youngest children to the island’s one-room schoolhouse. They are inconvenienced by isolation but treated to spectacular Puget Sound views.
“We don’t have stores. We don’t have amenities for families. It’s difficult for teenagers to live out here,” said Cheryl Jorban, a volunteer coordinator at the prison, “but it is a nice place to live, a beautiful place, and I will miss living out here.”
The state plans to empty the homes by March, just part of the disruption of lives following the Legislature’s decision this year to cut the prison’s population by 80 percent.
Jorban is one of many workers – and inmates – unsure where they’ll go next.
The future is uncertain, too, for the former federal penitentiary whose 135-year history predates Washington’s statehood.
McNeil held 1,292 prisoners as recently as December, but just 880 last Thursday. The Department of Corrections has closed one unit and plans a second closure this month.
In March, the prison is due to shrink to the 256 inmates required by this year’s state budget, a shadow of its former self.
Tyree Jones hopes to spend the last four years of his sentence at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen – not in Eastern Washington, where others have gone.
It’s prison, so it’s no picnic wherever you are, but at least at McNeil, Jones can see his 10- and 12-year-old sons from Tacoma. At McNeil, he could look forward to an upcoming father-son event in which kids would be allowed in the prison yard for bike-riding and hamburger-eating with Dad.
“Sending guys like me over the mountain, away from that activity” doesn’t make sense, Jones said Thursday as he sat for a haircut in a common area below the cells. “Just that little bit of stuff right there make a guy stay balanced.
“Man, when a guy can’t be around his family or his kids or something like that, he might kind of snap a little bit.”
The downsizing means the loss of hundreds of jobs.
McNeil will cut its 490 employees down to 136, said Sheri Poteet, associate superintendent at the prison. Many will transfer to other prisons, but some – an unknown number, Poteet said – will be laid off.
“Everybody’s in kind of a dead zone right now,” corrections officer Gerry Pinero said. “Basically, we all feel like we’ve been beaten, battered and bruised by the politicians.”
Budget-writing Democrats said that downsizing to a small, minimum-security lockup would save tens of millions of dollars to help plug a $2.8 billion state deficit and avoid adding to this year’s tax increases.
They also saw it as a middle step to closing McNeil and building a new prison elsewhere in Western Washington, saving the department the cost of running expensive ferries and utilities.
That infrastructure will continue to be needed, however, because another group of island residents isn’t going anywhere: 277 sex offenders detained at the state’s Special Commitment Center.
The lockup down the road depends on the prison for cheap inmate labor. With the prison shrinking, the commitment center may take over or share some tasks such as wastewater treatment, center Superintendent Kelly Cunningham said.
But it will need more state money if the prison shuts down altogether and takes away the inmates that had tied up the ferry and maintained the roads, he said. Lawmakers said they built the costs of replacing the labor pool into their savings projections.
Pinero and other workers protest the shutdown of the facility after they worked to bring it up to high standards that allowed it to be accredited last year by the American Correctional Association.
“You take a look at that and say, ‘Here we are, a prison that has met every single standard nationwide, and yet we are being downsized, perhaps closed,’” said corrections officer Joseph Sudyka, who’s deciding whether to transfer or face losing his job.
Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said while employees should be proud of the recognition for McNeil, the state’s other prisons also met the standards.
After downsizing, the prison could go in one of two directions: Shut down entirely, or, if more inmates than expected enter the prison system, start filling up again.
Staying permanently at the low level of 256 inmates is “not a viable solution,” state prisons director Dick Morgan said. Using such a small fraction of the prison misses out on economies of scale, he sad.
Costs are rising to $180 per inmate per day, up from the $119 it would cost to house twice as many offenders.
The smaller population size has another effect: Prison officials figure the prison no longer needs staff living on the island.
For years, the housing was justified by the need to have immediate backup available in emergencies. Soon McNeil will be no larger than other prisons in remote areas where response times are long, Morgan said, so it won’t matter so much if employees live a ferry ride away.
Eliminating housing will disperse a community.
In the yard outside one of the houses that dot the island, three kids play, one riding a bike. Pinero hails them as he drives by.
“I’ve watched these kids come and grow and have their own kids,” said Pinero, who has worked at the prison since 1986.
He continues on, past the fire department and the old red clapboard schoolhouse. Just six students attend Harriet Taylor Elementary, where Jennipher Hennessey teaches kindergarten through fourth grade.
Cynthia Hongell, who drives the bus that takes children to the school and older students to the ferry, faces the prospect of a new job driving on the mainland.
“We weren’t ready for this closure to happen,” Hongell said. “They’ve always talked about it, but never actually acted upon it.”
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan. firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/politics