Located on McNeil Island in Puget Sound, the Washington Territorial Penitentiary opened on May 28, 1875. It had a stone cell house with 48 small double cells but no kitchen, bathrooms, offices, or guard accommodations. There was no heat or running water. A wooden guardhouse was added that enclosed the only exterior door of the cell house. In 1898 the wooden structure was replaced with a brick guardhouse.
The admission procedure was for the guard on duty to write the names of new prisoners in a daily journal. Each prisoner was handed his black and white prison “stripes” and immediately put to work doing chores. Prisoners supplemented their prison rations by growing their own food.
Life at the prison was grim — inmates worked all day, every day except Sunday and had to earn money for “extras” like soap and tobacco by making cedar shingles. Life was almost as bad for the guards, who lived at the penitentiary and were on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week with two and a half days off duty each month to visit family on the mainland.
Transportation to and from the prison was accomplished by rowboat for many years. Sewage was dumped into the shoreline and water had to be hand pumped by prisoners into a reservoir on top of the cell block. When water supplies ran low prisoners bathed in the cold, salty water of Puget Sound.
The name changed to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in 1891 when it became one of the first three federal prisons in the United States. Of the three, McNeil Island was the most distant from Washington D.C. and it was neglected. A prison hospital wasn’t built until 1906 and an additional cell house and electrical power plant were not added until 1911. A telephone didn’t arrive until 1923.
After it became a federal prison, McNeil Island housed prisoners who had either broken federal laws or committed a crime on federal lands. Common reasons for being imprisoned at USP McNeil Island in the early days included selling liquor to Indians, robbing a post office and, after 1910, breach of White-Slave Traffic Act, (Mann Act) that made it illegal to take a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
Sometime around 1900 (no date was kept), officials at the prison photographed all the inmates of the penitentiary. Most were photographed in groups rather than individually. Initially the prisoners were told to come outside and line up along a brick wall where there was enough light to expose the glass plate negatives they used. Later a sheet was tacked up to hide the bricks. The photographer was unsure of how to operate the camera, leading to many plates being out of focus and underexposed. In one odd case a mugshot was pinned to the wall and photographed rather than the man himself being photographed. The notes shown to the right of each photo are all that was written about who is pictured. One man, identified only as “Kishtoo” was photographed twice.
The result of the photographic confusion is that the first set of prisoner photos taken at McNeil Island is extraordinary. In some of the photos, the prisoners, many of whom were Alaska Natives or Chinese, stood together in groups that were apparently of their own choosing and posed however they felt like posing. Some had probably never seen a camera before and look suspicious. Others appear angry, perhaps at being interrupted in their work. The looks on the men’s faces range from defiant to ashamed and from bored to perplexed.
On April 1, 2011, the penitentiary closed its doors permanently.
The faces of McNeil Island Penitentiary offer testimony to a distant time and a vanished place.
All photos from the collection of the National Archives, McNeil Island Penitentiary Identification Photos of Prisoners.