Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is One Less Prison a Good Thing?

Built in 1876, America's last "island prison" is destined for the scrap heap.

McNeil Island Corrections Center, located in Washington state's south Puget Sound, is closing next spring, due to state budget cuts and cost inefficiencies. Nearly fifty years after our country's most famous island fortress, Alcatraz, shut down, McNeil Island will finally lock its doors, but this time no one will be clamoring from the inside.

The facility has housed some notorious bad guys, most notably, that big man on campus, Chuck Manson. Manson served a five-year stint in the early 1960s, prior to his discovery that The Beatles needed him to stab some people for them. I might have washed their cars or walked their dogs, but I suppose Charles was just a little more of a pleaser.

Prisons have always fascinated me. I think it began at the tender age of fifteen, when a documentary aired, entitled Scared Straight, in which juvenile offenders visited Rahway State Prison in New Jersey. They sat in a room and listened as a group of inmates serving life sentences described prison life in intimate detail. The kids were screamed at, provoked and highly intimidated as they heard about what they would encounter should they continue down their delinquent paths.

Even though I was exceedingly "straight" when compared with these adolescents, I was still fascinated and terrified by this broadcast. By no means was I keen on following my "daddy" around the prison yard, my index finger hooked in his rear belt loop or being traded to a convicted arsonist for a Butterfinger and half a jar of Vaseline, but I couldn't pry my eyes away.

Ever since, I've been drawn to prison-themed TV shows and movies, like Escape From Alcatraz, Bad Boys (where Sean Penn smacks a guy with a pillow case full of coke cans), The Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, The Longest Yard and Papillion. I even liked The Andy Griffith Show, since someone occasionally ended up in Sheriff Taylor's cage.

It's difficult to imagine actually doing hard time, which feeds my obsessive anxieties about going to prison. For instance, what if I just happened to be walking downtown wearing jeans, a blue jacket, white Adidas shoes and a George Bush mask, right when some guy happens to be robbing a daycare center in an identical outfit. See how simple it would be to be sent away?

I'm not prepared. I don't have the skills to give someone a tattoo with a Tootsie Pop stick or make a shiv out of a large Cheeto. I do use liquid soap, though, so no problem there. And call me old fashioned, but I prefer a much longer courtship before a relationship is consummated than is par for the course in the big house.

So farewell, McNeil Island Corrections Center. After 134 years, you've served the public good by housing those who owed a debt to the public. If only your walls could talk.

On second thought, it's probably better that they can't.

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