Blog: Thoughts for Thanksgiving: visiting McNeil Prison

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The facade of McNeil Prison (Photo by Assunta Ng/NWAW)

I was reading the Sunday New York Times and one article stated that there were too many people who wanted to volunteer serving Thanksgiving dinner for the poor. Too many volunteers in the wrong places!
May I suggest you another option?

Recently, I was at McNeil Prison with one of our writers, interviewing an inmate who was in prison for more than two decades. Aside from King County Jail, I have not visited any other U.S. prison.

This was the prison where inmates wrote to Northwest Asian Weekly years ago. When we printed their letters to the editor, they were elated that someone listened and cared. The prison is a good place for volunteers to reach out.

Located on McNeil Island, hence its name, I was surprised by the pretty environment. It’s a wooded area with only a few inhabitants and houses for McNeil’s staff.  The prison is isolated in gloom and loneliness. It is a contrast to neighboring islands like Gig Harbor and Fox Island.

Security was tight. We had to apply before our visit and we were screened at our arrival. During the half-hour ferry ride, which was prison-operated and the only means of transportation for the island, I stood up and tried to walk out of our seats. Our escort got nervous.

She said, “You have to remain in your seat.” I stared at the other 20 or so visitors, guides, and inmates on the ferry, who sat in an obedient and motionless manner.

On our way back, we rode on the barge because it was too wavy and windy for the ferry.

Was I scared? No. I was glad I went. The inmate we chatted with was able to share with us his feelings for the first time, even though it was hard for him during previous occasions. It was like a burden off his chest.

The inmates have one thing in common. They made split second decisions that turned out to be fatal mistakes in their lives. The results have landed them in prison for years. Many wanted to redeem themselves.

Others desperately needed friends to talk to, to play cards with, and to keep in touch with so they can have a taste of the outside world to keep themselves sane.

If you would like to volunteer at McNeil Prison, call Cheryl Jorban, volunteer coordinator, at 253-512-6583. Volunteers  need to fill out an application, are subject to a background check, and need to go through 4 hours of training. ♦

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