Everyone has heard of Alcatraz. The picture of hardened criminals locked away on an isolated island in the middle of choppy waters seems to make sense. While many picture San Francisco as being the only place this happens, that is not the case.
The Pacific Northwest has their version of Alcatraz that quietly separates the worst of the worst from the rest of society. This is not a traditional prison though; this is a “special commitment center” for those coming out of prison who can’t safely return to freedom.
While many of the people serving time for a crime are released after their sentence has been served, there are some who are deemed too dangerous to get out of the system. The facility in Steilacoom, Washington houses some of the worst sex offenders the state has seen.
Roughly 280 high-level offenders are living behind the barbed wire fences at this facility. The sign reads merely “Special Commitment Center.”
The cement buildings are housed on McNeil Island in the Puget Sound. There is only one way to get to the island, that is aboard a very secure government-run ferry.
Residents of the McNeil Island come from all different types of background, but they share one evil distinction. These are rapists, child molesters and repeat sex offenders that no one wants living next door.
For the most part, this facility serves as a place for treatment. They come to the island to get the type of support they need to be able to hopefully one day get out of the system.
McNeil Island at one point also held a prison, but this closed several years ago. Now the only thing going on here is the efforts being made to reform dangerous sex offenders.
The center was created in 1990 via the Community Protection Act. This was the first civil commitment law in the country. Now there are 19 other states with similar laws.
This law essentially allows the state to commit the most dangerous offenders to serve time in a treatment facility like this instead of being released after serving time in prison.
To be committed to this type of center, the offender needs to meet the legal definition of a “sexually violent predator.”
A civil commitment can take place when the criminal justice system sees the offender as someone who is likely to re-offend. The people held at this facility are all highly violent and sex offenders on some level.
About 3 percent of the inmates coming out of prison in the State of Washington for sex crimes end up with a civil commitment. They are not prisoners in a traditional sense because they are serving a sentence.
Some of the offenders will complete treatment in hopes of getting to go back into the community at some point. They are all offered treatment, and it is voluntary. Their time being held at the center is not voluntary though.
While the most violent of the offenders are housed in single cells, others earn the chance to live in less confined dorm settings. They can also earn the right to wear street clothes, have electronics like radios and other privileges.
Even for the offenders who earn special housing or other privileges, there is always a very real risk of harm for the staff on the island. They each wear body alarms that can at any time signal for help should something happen to them.
The 280 residents are always under watch. This is done via a system of 250 closed circuit televisions and cameras all over the facility.
Staff on the island are not armed in the traditional sense. They do have non-lethal weapons available at all times. There are no guns on the island due to the risk of them being turned against employees.
When a prisoner is committed to this type of facility, their file is reviewed on a yearly basis. There is often no end date for their stay, and there are many who have been on the island for more than a decade.
The age of the residents varies significantly. The youngest is 19, and the oldest is 80. Many will never leave the facility.
For those hoping to eventually get out, treatment may be the only way to do so. While is it offered to everyone, only 45 percent of the group is currently using the service.
The law that may keep some of the residents here until they die is controversial at times. This is tied to the fact that some see this as a punishment not for what they have already done but for what they might do in the future.