McNeil Island

The newest secure treatment facility for sex offenders is also the finest.

By passing the Community Protection Act of 1990, Washington state was among the first to establish a new kind of treatment center that would confine habitual sex offenders after their release from prison. The McNeil Island Special Commitment Center was created, charged with protecting the community while also maintaining the civil rights of post-release offenders in confinement.


The civil commitment program found a home within the century-old McNeil Island Corrections Center, formerly a federal penitentiary before being handed to the Washington DOC in 1981. The secure treatment concept was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, but a federal judge in Washington state looked at the McNeil Island program and said it was not fulfilling its treatment mission.

Washington state was then under injunction to expand and improve the sex-offender program or face $10 million in fines. Run by the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and not the Department of Corrections, the program was moved outside the prison.

The new $52 million, 228-bed Special Commitment Center, sited two miles away and opened in May, now shares the island with the prison, but little else. Even their utilities are separate. Balancing treatment and security, bright dayrooms with soft materials blend jail pod with community college lounge.

Though the colorful structure is as solid as any corrections facility and surrounded with razor ribbon, the atmosphere inside is therapeutic. There is carpet in the dayrooms and in some of the classrooms and treatment areas.

McNeil Island Special Commitment Center
Steilacoom, Wash.

Secure treatment center for civilly-committed sex offenders

Construction Cost: $52 million
Delivery Method: GC/CM
Number of Beds: 228
Area (s.f.): 118,000 square feet
Start Date: May 2002
Completion Date: May 2004
Owner/Operator: Washington Dept. of Social & Health Services
Construction Manager: Absher/Kitchell
Architect: KMB Justice Facilities Group/BJSS Duarte Bryant
Architectural Programming: Carter Goble Associates
Security Electronics Contractor: Status Automation
Detention Equipment Contractor: Grand Openings
Precaster: Bethlehem Construction

Residents possess proximity cards that serve as keys to their single rooms and, based on their behavior, provide freedom of movement in the facility with access events digitally logged at central control.

Absher-Kitchell, a joint venture between Kitchell and Absher Construction, served as construction manager/general contractor to build the 27-acre campus, and architecture services were provided by KMB Justice and BJSS Duarte Bryant. Status Automation was the security electronics contractor.

Resting 7 miles from Tacoma and 2.5 miles from the nearest mainland dock at Steilacoom (pronounced "Still-a-cum"), McNeil Island is presently the setting for a stand-alone facility that gives Washington’s civil commitment program every chance to succeed.

Island Logistics

Open control stations encourage face-to-face interaction, but behind each station is a secure office where staff can retreat if necessary.

McNeil Island is more well-known as a prison site than as part of the McNeil Island Wildlife Area, which also includes the smaller Gertrude and Pitt Islands. Within the nature reserve, the state penitentiary and now the new civil commitment center are the only developments.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife holds ownership to the islands, while the DOC retains management for 1,326 acres of farmland on the 4,500-acre main island. The security provided by the wildlife deed and DOC operations prohibiting public access protect several naturally-occurring animal populations.

The bark of harbor seals is a familiar sound. Herons and bald eagles nest nearby, while the most visible wildlife on McNeil Island is the large population of Columbian black-tailed deer, which thrive in second- and third-growth forest covering nearly three-quarters of the island.

"The Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan was paramount," says Mike Connelly, construction manager for Kitchell, who kept nearby salmon spawning routes ever in mind. "The fact that we performed a large earthmoving operation in environmentally-sensitive areas, adjacent to a fenced-off wetland and to the island’s water reservoir, heightened the need to do everything absolutely correct."

Three-pronged supports accent the daylighting while also preserving staff sightlines. Artificial uplighting is mounted on the columns, adding variety to lighting options.

That operation started at the precast assembly plant in Eastern Washington. It fell to Absher’s construction manager, Dennis Smith, to coordinate truck passages through snowy mountain canyons prone to avalanche warnings and closure, and then to get those materials across the rough waters of the Puget Sound.

More than 2,500 vehicle transports were scheduled on and off the island for the project. In addition, the unique conditions required made-to-order measures. Getting a crane on-site involved complying with load limits of both the DOC and Steilacoom docks and space on the barge. In the end, the team used cranes with a capacity larger than that required for the lifts in order to minimize the weight-per-axle criteria.

Barges were outfitted with special noses so they could hover off shore, extend the nose up from the barge with a cover underneath the entire gravel transport, shipping gravel direct from a barge onto a truck. "The tough part was that the tide window only gave us two to three hours at a time," says Connelly. "Work was dictated by the tides, occurring at different times of day."

The barges shot 14,000 cubic yards of gravel per delivery into trucks or piles. Sometimes, stormy waters prevented barges and ferries from landing at the south prison dock. Falling back on the protected harbor, Still Harbor, required a whole new set of logistics.

"We had to take barges to a different harbor with different docking conditions and a different barge nose," says Connelly. "That means getting to our barge contractor in enough time, so he could refit his barges such that he could be able to get to Still Harbor. From a schedule perspective, I can say it was fun now, but at the time it was added pressure for the contractors."

More than 200 cameras monitor the facility. When freelymoving residents access a door with their proximity card, the event is digitally recorded at central control.

Connelly calls the effort an exercise in "just-in-time" delivery to meet the planned resident population move. "What this project represents for the DSHS is the culmination of long-held vision plans where they were going to consolidate these Level III sex offenders in one facility. The bottom line is, there was no room to extend the schedule. They were drop-dead dates."

Secure Treatment

A civil commitment center for post-release sex offenders has an distinctly different mission from a correctional facility, and trying to run this program from within the McNeil Island Corrections Center was just as logistically conflicted.

Operating under a federal court injunction, residents in the stepchild facility were extremely restricted. They could not mix with inmates. Their use of the yard was limited, and the dining hall was difficult to access. As more residents were placed in secure treatment, the DSHS took over prison space. And because treatment requires single rooms, expanding always meant modifying double cells to single cells.

Though higher to prevent pushing, the welded-metal railings might be found in a community college.

"We were growing and causing great concern for the prison because we can’t let people out the back door unless the court takes them out," says Beverly Wilson, acting superintendent for the Special Commitment Center. "Our residents maintain more civil rights than an inmate. It only remains confinement in a secure environment to support their treatment."

To treat sex offenders successfully, they must be grouped by their psychological profiles and clinical needs. The reverberating galleries of the old Special Commitment Center, where a single unit congregated as many as 150 residents, did not facilitate targeted treatment approaches for residents who often begin life as victims themselves.

"The unit we formerly occupied was first constructed in 1926," explains Rick Ramseth, associate superintendent of operations and support services. "It was a cement brick and iron structure that was open, so we had the loud and raucous environment you might see in old movies."

A landscaped campus organized around a large central courtyard distinguishes the new Special Commitment Center, which incorporates pre-existing work camp structures for a total of eight buildings. At the main entrance to the housing building, a walkway extends from the athletic field down to the main entrance. In a one-story elevation drop, a series of sidewalks that cascade down the hillside with steps and a handicap accessible switchback. Along the pathway, there are benches and stools looking out to a landscaped bank.

The color schemes are varied throughout the facility in red-brick shade and ochres, pinks and dark-brown tones. Units of no more than 48-beds allow DSHS officials to program for smaller increments of the population based on their clinical needs, instead of being bunched up in large units. A four-bed unit is set aside for female sex offenders.

Product Data

Security Cell Doors: Trussbilt
Cell Door Controls: Folger Adam
Door Locks: Southern Steel
Window Frames: Southern Steel

Integrated Alarm/Door/Card-Access Control: Status Automation System 2000
Intercom/Paging System: Harding DXI
CCTV System/Cameras: Vicon Industries
PLC: GE Fanuc
Personal Alarm: Actall Corp.
Perimeter Taut-Wire: DeTekion Security Systems
Video/Motion Detection: Safeguards Technologies
Panelboard Control: Square D Powerlogic
Generator Load-Shedding: Controlled Power Inc.
Security Fire Equipment: Notifier
Blinded Glass System: Vision Control

"Some residents in this population are very vulnerable. They can be singled out and harassed by other groups, so small units also isolate them from general population," says John Lindstrom, principal-in-charge-of-production from BJSS Duarte Bryant. "These people are only civilly committed, so anything that happens to them, the lawsuits become much more difficult for the state to resolve."

In the dayrooms, three-pronged supports add architectural accent and artificial uplighting in combination with natural daylighting. "One of the problems in the Pacific Northwest is that there are many gray months, and if you don’t bring sufficient outside light in, it gets drab," says KMB Justice Principal Steve Anderson, project director. "We did it up high."

The center support also reduces the number of columns to improve visual surveillance. Variable lighting levels within the dayrooms give staff control over four or five different lighting combinations. Lights can be dimmed while still providing enough illumination for security.

For the DSHS, treatment requires individual rooms. Every room has a large window with blinds captured between the two layers of glazing, offering a residential feel without the security risk of loose blinds. As for sanitation arrangements, only the high-security units have wet cells.

The facility includes a clinical program in some of the residential units that, while not an actual infirmary, provides a high level of nursing support. "Our average age is in the late 40s, and we have a number of residents who are in their 60s and 70s," says Superintendent Wilson. "This is indefinite civil commitment, so some people are going to be here a long time, or already are aging."

Passive Security

The most important interface between the physical structure and the program is that varying levels of treatment are more efficient with electronic surveillance and proximity cards to track movement. "It allows access to certain areas if they have the privilege, and access doesn’t involve direct staff intervention. That’s why it’s called ‘passive security,’" says Anderson.

"We couldn’t do that on a manual basis, offering certain liberties while at the same time restricting those who need to be restricted from certain areas at certain times," says Wilson. "It would be too complex, but now we can manage that complexity."

The most vulnerable residents are always escorted by security staff. Direct monitoring by officers is preferred over the use of cameras, but the facility has about 200 cameras, monitored both locally within unit control and at central control, with digital-recording capability.

Underlying the treatment component is the fact that the residents can be dangerous to each other and to staff. "We tried to be as covert as we could with security items, trying to use as much glass as possible and make the security features less correctional in appearance," says Lindstrom.

Most of the security stations are open to a dayroom, where a resident can come up and talk with security staff, face-to-face. Security rooms behind the station lay in reserve in case of an incident, allowing the staff to retreat to an office with a secure door, security glazing and communications.

On the mezzanine, the welded-metal railings are open and lighter than those usually found in a prison. "The railings are more what you would find in a community college, but they’re higher so somebody doesn’t get a boost over the side," Lindstrom says.

In terms of the thickness of the doors and windows, all of the building elements are to correctional standards. To visitors, the exterior perimeter is harsh in appearance, with razor ribbon and a taut-wire intrusion-detection system that triggers cameras to monitor and record the spot where the electronic field is disturbed.

Is electronic perimeter detection problematic on a teeming nature preserve? "The systems can be calibrated. After you’re on the island a little while, you start to understand at what times they tend to migrate from place to place," Connelly replies. "We were able to observe animal movement and see what kind of reading a raccoon or deer produces."

To allow visitors and staff to enter the facility without being buffeted by a security edifice, a pedestrian tunnel passes underneath the double perimeter fence. "Once you get inside the building, there’s a reception station there, so as you pass through the next layer of security doors, you’re basically stepping from outside the treatment center to the interior," says Lindstrom.

Most correctional facilities are largely self-sufficient when it comes to power, but the demands of island operation demand more than standard back-up systems. The McNeil Island Special Commitment Center’s emergency power switching system includes automatic load-checking. In the event of a power outage, the facility has the ability to automatically shut down non-essential systems one by one, retaining power for only essential systems.

"A traditional system attempts to replace the primary power feed into the campus or facility, replacing an alternating current primary feed with a direct feed," Connelly explains. "There’s no ability to be selective about what aspect of the facility is shut down. Then things are turned back on, much of it manually. Now it’s all automatic."


One important component that was not part of Absher-Kitchell’s project scope is the renovation of Redwood Hall, a single-story wood structure that will serve as transition housing for geriatric residents and those on their way to less-restrictive placement. A low-security facility inside the perimeter, Redwood Hall lets residents cook their own meals and return to normalized living.

Many will never graduate to Redwood Hall, but having their own stand-alone facility also lets DSHS officials offer residents paying jobs in the yard, kitchen and maintenance. "We didn’t run our own kitchen before, and now we have our own kitchen and we have a need for kitchen workers," recalls Wilson. "The vocational opportunities for residents was very limited in the old facility. Residents are eager to get those jobs, and that’s a treatment component."

Between the need for community protection and the civil rights of sex offenders who have completed their criminal sentences, there is secure treatment for those whose broken lives have given rise to the most terrifying sexual crimes. The McNeil Island Special Commitment Center accepts the challenge to end the cycle of victimization.

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