“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking is freedom.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Beginning in 1870, state correction facility punishments included the use of ball and chain, flogging, shackling, tattooing or branding, solitary confinement and execution. In early 1871, the Army banned all punishments except solitary confinement and execution. This became an issue as the War Department had very little say in these state run facilities.
Brigadier General Thomas F. Barr submitted a request to consider the concept of a military prison. Directed to investigate the situation by the Secretary of War, a board of officers was sent to Canada to study the British military prison system and their modes of punishment.
After thoroughly examining the British system, the board’s recommendations for a military penal system were approved at all levels and a bill submitted to Congress in January of 1872. After a proposed location change to Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, for the first prison, the bill was passed and was signed by the president on March 3, 1873.
For numerous reason, including excessive security measures being required, the Secretary of War and the Ordnance Department objected to the location. Through the Adjutant General, a board was created to consider, by examination of best established state penitentiaries and prisons, the best correctional programs and physical plans. The board did determine it would be better to use a different site and recommended, although they were not charged with the responsibility, several alternatives.
The board’s findings were presented to Congress by the Secretary of War in early 1874. The amendment was approved on May 21, 1874, and the all provisions set for Rock Island were instead transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In addition, existing buildings on site were to be modified as necessary to facilitate immediate establishment of the prison.
Remodeling, as well as building a wooden-fenced perimeter (stockade), was eventually deemed livable and the first prisoners arrived in September of 1875. Modifications were ongoing, including a stone quarry, which was used to replace the wooden wall with stone.
Vocational training began in 1877. Today it includes education, vocations ranging from stocking and clerical to varying repair training and job placement assistance for those whose sentences are ending.
Photographing of prisoners for the purpose of identification was set up by the War Department in 1888-89 to establish permanent photographic records. Fort Leavenworth was among the first prisons to use this positive means of identification.
The prison came under fire, for many of the same reasons it was created in the first place. A bill, introduced to the House of Representatives in 1894-95 ended the War Department’s control of the prison and passed it on to the Department of Justice, becoming a United States Penitentiary on July 1, 1985.
The War Department was having second thoughts about the transfer of the military prison to the Department of Justice, as this transfer did not alleviate any of the original issues. On February 1, 1906 Fort Leavenworth again came under the control of the Department of War Department. It was later leased out to the Department of Justice due to overcrowding, but returned to the War Department on November 16, 1940.
With crowded conditions and lengthy prisoner waiting lists, the Disciplinary Barracks began to branch out in 1907. Some remained open only a short time, while others remain open today as state or federal prisons. In the meantime, Fort Leavenworth underwent reconstruction.
- Alcatraz Island (Pacific Branch)
- Fort Jay, New York (Atlantic Branch)
- Green Haven, New York (Eastern Branch)
- North Camp Hood, Texas (Southern Branch)
- Fort Missoula, Montana (Northwestern Branch)
- Camp Gordon, Georgia (Southeastern Branch)
- Jefferson Barracks, Missouri (Central Branch)
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Northern Branch)
- Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana (Midwestern Branch)
- Camp Haan, California (Southwestern Branch)
- New Cumberland, Pennsylvania (East Central Branch)
- Pine Camp, New York (Northeastern Branch)
- Lompoc, California
During World War II, with the exception of those facing life or very long sentences, soldiers who were overseas were held there as it was deemed unfair to return criminals to the safety of U.S. soil while honorable soldiers remained far from home. Had this policy not been in place, the Disciplinary Barracks would have burst at their seams.
Today, of the branches, only Fort Leavenworth remains a United States Disciplinary Barracks. And it is the only maximum security confinement facility of its type for the military.