• Museum shares history of military prison

  • This is the second in a series about new exhibit installations at the Frontier Army Museum.

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  • Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
    This is the second in a series about new exhibit installations at the Frontier Army Museum.
    In the years following the Civil War up until the mid-1870s, when a service member committed a punishable offense, they were incarcerated in one of 32 different stockades, prisons or penitentiaries across the United States, including Castle Williams on Governor’s Island, N.Y., and Bedloe’s Island, N.Y. During that time, various forms of punishment were exercised on the inmates, which included flogging, the use of ball and chain, shackling, tattooing or branding, solitary confinement and execution.
    “All of these modes of punishment, with the exception of solitary confinement and execution, were banned in the Army in early 1871. However, the punishment administered in 1871 to the 346 military prisoners scattered in 11 different state penitentiaries was an entirely different problem,” according to a study conducted by Maj. Jerry Price in 1978 while he was a student at the Command and General Staff College. “The War Department had very little control over military prisoners confined in state correctional institutions.”
    To address the issue, then-Maj. Thomas F. Barr — who would later become known as the father of the U.S. military prison — submitted a report to the Secretary of War suggesting that a military prison be built. After an investigation, Congress approved a bill in January 1872 to establish such a facility. Originally, designated to be at Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., an amendment in May 1874 changed the location to Fort Leavenworth where the U.S. Military Prison — renamed the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in 1915 — was established in 1874.
    The USDB and its history is the focus of the newest exhibit at the Frontier Army Museum; the exhibit was installed Feb. 28.
    The hallway exhibit is a down-size of the large exhibit that was in the Fort Leavenworth gallery, which the Fort Leavenworth Stables exhibit now occupies. Megan Hunter, FAM museum specialist, said it was important to keep the USDB featured somewhere in the museum.
    Each month, soldiers from the 40th Military Police Battalion (Detention) tour the museum as part of their pre-service training.
    “As part of the tour we always talk about the history of the USDB,” Hunter said. “So, we thought that was a good way to give them more visualization of the story and history by having artifacts out.
    “Museum-wise, we have a lot of artifacts, and it is only relatable to Fort Leavenworth,” she said. “We have the USDB. This is where it is located.”
    The exhibit includes a bronze collar disc worn by prison guards from 1910-1916, a prison guard cap badge, a scan of a USDB shoe shop boot order from 1911, leg irons from 1880, handcuffs from 1879, an illustrated newspaper from 1888 depicting life in the military prison, and a colorized postcard from the early 1900s, which showed the USDB’s completed “Castle.”
    Page 2 of 2 - The exhibit also includes a stop on the Fort Leavenworth Wayside Tour so visitors can learn more.
    “This is just a small smattering of what we have information-wise on the USDB,” Hunter said. “So, if anyone ever comes here and they want to ask more, they can grab a staff member, and we can give you more information because there is only so much information you can put out in an exhibit, and there’s just so much history.”
    Construction of the old USDB began in 1874 and was completed in 1921. Prisoners were first accepted into the facility in 1875, and they helped with the facility’s construction, including an eight-story multi-wing cell block constructed from 1908 to 1915 that was dubbed “the Castle,” wrote historian Quentin Schillare in his book “Fort Leavenworth: The People Behind the Names.”
    “The USDB mission is to incarcerate U.S. military prisoners sentenced to long terms (10 years to life) of confinement,” Schillare wrote. “The inmate population varied, but the facility could hold over 1,000 prisoners. Depending on their behavior, inmates could work in support of vocational programs around post.”
    In 2002, the old USDB closed and was replaced by a new facility at the northern-most end of post on USDB Road. Unlike its larger predecessor, the new facility can only house about 500 inmates.
    Several portions of the old USDB were demolished in the following years, but several structures were remodeled and renovated and are currently used for office and classroom space.
    Other correctional facilities in the Leavenworth area include the Lansing Correctional Facility, which opened in 1868; the U.S. Penitentiary-Leavenworth, which opened in 1903; the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility, adjacent to the current USDB, which opened in 2010; and CoreCivic’s Leavenworth Detention Center, which opened in 1992.
    To learn more, visit the museum.
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