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McNeil Island is an island in the southern Puget Sound in Washington. It lies between the south Tacoma suburbs to the east, and the Kitsap Peninsula (which, itself, is part of the larger Olympic Peninsula to the west. It is roughly circular, and measures around 3 by 2 miles. It is a few thousand feet away from the the western shore, and a few miles away from the eastern shore. It is just north of Anderson Island, an island of similar size. However, as I will explain, Anderson and McNeil are quite different.

For many years, McNeil Island was a federal prison, with its island location and (at the time) isolation from major population centers making it a good place to stash away prisoners. However, after the prison became too expensive to operate, the federal prison was closed, and the state of Washington took over, turning it into a special Civil Commitment Center. Washington State can legally commit certain offenders---in this case, sexual predators, after their sentences is over, changing from inmate into patient. In this case, the confinement on McNeil Island is about as secure as at any prison, with the additional barrier of several miles of water. Currently, there are around 200 patients on the island. All supplies, as well as the staff and guards for the center, come in on a ferry from the mainland. Most of the island is covered with forest.

The Puget Sound is a complicated, fractal landscape. In many places on the Puget Sound, it is possible to look over at a place a few hundred or thousand feet away, that would require a hundred mile land journey to reach. Beneath the freeways that connect the gigantic, modern cities, there are nooks and crannies that you can look at, but are hard to reach. McNeil Island is a few thousand feet north of Anderson Island, a rustic and expensive vacation and retirement center. The distance between them, on land, could be covered in a 20 minute stroll. But who can imagine the type of distance separating life on an island for violent sexual offenders from life on a cute little retirement community? It is hard to reconcile the physical distances with the total difference between these environments?

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