Adolescence can sometimes feel like a prison. You can’t come and go as you please; your options for food, meal times, and entertainment are restricted; and you have little choice over the people with whom you associate in your daily life.
Comics artist Colleen Frakes really did spend her adolescence in a prison—or more precisely, on a prison island: McNeil Island, in Washington State’s Puget Sound. McNeil was the last prison island in the United States that, like its infamous cousin Alcatraz, was only accessible by plane or by boat. Frakes’ parents worked at the prison and were therefore eligible to live in a subsidized house on the island, like the families of other employees. For her family, working and living at the prison was a chance to settle down and all live in the same place, after years of moving for different jobs. Frakes and her sister would be able to attend the same schools instead of starting over every few years. But with this opportunity came many challenges: Frakes had to ride the 6 a.m. ferry to school every morning, time spent hanging out in the yard at home was immediately curtailed every time an inmate work crew appeared, and there were strict rules governing resident behavior on the island, even for family members.
Flashbacks telling the story of Frakes’ family moving to McNeil and settling in, as well as later incidents from her teen years on the island, are framed by the story of the island’s closing in 2011, when all remaining inmates were transferred to other facilities. She and her family returned for the prison’s closing ceremony and toured what had become a ghost town; going home again was a time for reflection that generated even more ambivalence than revisiting one’s hometown usually does.
Approximately two million adults in the United States are currently incarcerated—nearly one percent of the adult population. Prison Island includes a bibliography and links to information about prison reform and activism. Like many memoirists, Frakes recognizes that she can help her readers look beyond stereotypes to develop compassion. In one incident that particularly stood out to me, Frakes and her mother run into a family at a mall on the mainland. Her mother, a prison guard, greets the father of the family warmly, and is pleased to hear about his current work and home life. But when he tells her, “I mean this in the nicest way, but I hope I never see you again,” she laughs, with kindness and simple understanding. Later she tells Colleen that the man is a former inmate who recognized her from his time on McNeil. Yet many former inmates don’t stop her or greet her when they see each other “on the outside”; shame is a powerful force.
Frakes tells the story of her life on McNeil in lovely, minimalist ink drawings, interspersed with maps of the island and its surroundings, and digressions on island’s history. Middle grade through adult readers interested in graphic memoirs will find Prison Island to be an instant classic. If adolescence is a prison from which most people are eventually paroled, Prison Island is time spent well “on the inside.”
by Colleen Frakes
Zest Books, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 14-17 years old