State to close McNeil Island prison due to budget cuts

State to close McNeil Island prison due to budget cuts
McNeil Island Corrections Center
OLYMPIA, Wash. - The state will close the McNeil Island Corrections Center and move the inmates to other prisons around the state next year as part of an effort to save millions of dollars.

Chad Lewis, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, said the McNeil Island facility will officially close by April 1.

The agency had originally planned to close Larch Corrections Center near Vancouver but determined that closing Larch would not save enough money, Lewis said.

The state will save an estimated $6.3 million each year by closing the McNeil Island prison, located in south Puget Sound. It would have saved only $2 million by closing Larch.

The Department of Corrections must reduce spending by nearly $53 million as a result of across-the-board cuts due to declining tax revenue.

Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said the McNeil Island prison had become "the victim of a historic budget crisis."

The closure "will save the most money without compromising the safety of our staff, the offenders and the public," Secretary Eldon Vail said. "The budget crisis is causing us to make some of the most painful decisions in our agency’s history."

Lewis said the Department of Corrections will have enough beds in its remaining 12 prisons to house the 16,000 offenders who are currently incarcerated.

McNeil Island's Special Commitment Center for sex offenders, operated by the state Department of Social and Human Services, will remain open, officials said.

The costs to operate the ferries, barges and fire boats to McNeil Island will shift to the DSHS. The island will not need as many ferry and barge runs once the prison is shut down.

Over the past year, the Department of Corrections has downsized McNeil Island from a medium-security prison that houses 1,200 offenders to a minimum-security prison with about 515 inmates. There are about 245 staff members who work at the prison.

"The impact this will have on the staff and their families is enormous," Vail said. "We will do all we possibly can to find them positions elsewhere in the agency."

This will be the third prison the state has closed within a year. Two minimum-security prisons, Ahtanum View Corrections Center in Yakima and Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women near Spokane, were closed earlier in 2010.

McNeil Island was a federal prison from 1875 until it closed in 1976. The state leased it from the federal government and reopened the prison in 1981.

The federal prison's most famous inmates included Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz," who was held there from 1909-12, and Charles Manson, who was an inmate from 1961-66 for trying to cash a forged government check.

Larch Corrections Center, a minimum-security prison located on Larch Mountain in Clark County, will go back to full capacity and house 480 offenders. It currently houses about 240 offenders.