Let’s fix our version of Devil’s Island

Special Commitment Center at McNeil Island on Wednesday, February 2, 2011.
Special Commitment Center at McNeil Island on Wednesday, February 2, 2011. Staff photographer

Once society creates a sort of modern Devil’s Island to isolate its criminal outcasts, it’s easy to look away and forget about the captives. We hope that isn’t part of the problem at Washington’s once-pioneering Special Commitment Center for dangerous sex criminals whom we all would like to forget – were it safe to do so.

The center, located on McNeil Island next to a former federal and then state prison, holds sexually violent predators. Like the infamous Devil’s Island off French Guiana that first held lepers and then some of France’s worst criminals, SCC residents have some freedom of movement due to the isolated environs.

But the 252 SCC residents are in fact sick people who – despite having served their prison terms – pose such a threat to public safety they are held until treatment can render them safe enough for release.

A key word under the state’s 1990 civil commitment law, and court rulings about that innovative law, is treatment. To hold a person prisoner indefinitely after serving a prison term is not a constitutional option.

However, adequate treatment isn’t happening, according to a lawsuit drafted for Disability Rights Washington, a legal advocacy group.

The threatened lawsuit is still a long way from an objective legal finding that the state is in the wrong. But an Associated Press report published over the weekend noted that an independent inspection team required under state law has issued repeated yearly reports saying some SCC units are providing “no obvious treatment.”

The AP’s Martha Bellisle described the facility as “college campus-styled” on the inside, but it is surrounded by electrified fencing and razor wire on an island in chilly Puget Sound. The inspection team said one unit was “more reminiscent of a correctional setting than a treatment facility.’’

Experts and lawyers are using words like “malpractice” and “negligent” to describe the treatment that is provided for mentally ill offenders and those with brain injuries. Use of restraints and isolation of some offenders raise other questions.

This should be much more disturbing to our state’s lawmakers than it has been.

The state must meet U.S. legal standards by ensuring the center is a treatment facility. Otherwise it risks the public safety tool that keeps our worst offenders in check.

Even the facility’s chief executive, Mark Strong, told AP that the Rehabilitation Administration (which operates the SCC) is limited by resources in its effort to operate it . The agency is seeking $4.1 million in the supplemental budget that the Legislature will draft in its next session starting in January.

We don’t know if $4.1 million is the right amount. There may be failings by the administration in hiring staff, although the island’s remote location and the center’s clientele would certainly be a challenge in attracting top talent.

Yet we need a civil commitment process that is legal and functions.

As our state continues to emerge from the Great Recession and rebuild programs – including meeting court orders to improve funding of K-12 schools and repair mental health programs – we should not forget we have captives on our milder version of Devil’s Island.

Voters must recognize that safety comes at a cost. Shell games to avoid tax increases and easy rhetoric about cutting government waste have no place here. As a society we ought to be willing to dig deeply enough to provide needed funds.