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Ft. Leavenworth's Military Inmates Get Grim Home Where Discipline Is Order of Day

December 04, 1988|MATT TRUELL | Associated Press

FT. LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — They call it The Castle, a massive stone building with eight wings radiating from a central six-story rotunda.

The wings hold eight tiers of cells, stacked one upon the other, and in each 8-by-10-foot cell an inmate is allowed a cot, a table and a chair.

The U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Ft. Leavenworth is the biggest military prison in the nation. It is a grim home for about 1,450 inmates, sent here from bases all over the world, wherever American military men and women are stationed.

Forty-two officers, including one lieutenant colonel, and 21 women are serving time here. Among them are drug dealers, armed robbers, rapists, murderers and spies. More than 80 are serving life terms. Three inmates are on Death Row.

And there is strict military discipline.

"Our rules are so strict that if a guy turns left, and he knows he's not supposed to turn left, he's in trouble," said Lt. Col. Gerald M. Gasko, prison chief of staff.

"You earn what you get here," added the prison commandant, Col. Larry Berrong, a former Army airborne Ranger and Vietnam veteran. "There aren't any free lunches."

Military officials say the goal of the prison is not just confinement, but correction.

"Unfortunately, in the United States today we do a lot of confining and not much correction," Gasko said. "We attempt to give them tools so when they leave here, they can be productive citizens."

When inmates leave these walls, they return to civilian life, not to the military.

Next to discipline, training is the top priority at the Ft. Leavenworth prison, which has more than 20 vocational programs including automotive repairs, printing, carpentry, upholstery, and hotel and restaurant management.

Inmates, whom officials would not allow to be interviewed, even repair cars and furniture of military families living at Ft. Leavenworth.

Officials claim that the Disciplinary Barracks has the oldest shoe repair business west of the Mississippi River, started in 1877 to make boots for cavalrymen.

Now it repairs everything from prescription orthopedic shoes to cleated golf shoes, Gasko said.

The prison also has one of the largest silk-screening businesses in the nation, providing all the decals for U.S. Air Force planes.

Congress authorized the prison's construction in 1874. An old quartermaster depot that had supplied military posts in the Indian Territory housed the first prisoners. The Castle was completed in 1915 by inmate labor.

Inmate labor is still used for maintenance, but the prisoners also work with their minds. Most have high school diplomas, and those who don't go straight into the classroom when they arrive, Gasko said.

They can earn associate and bachelor's degrees through correspondence, and a few are working on master's degrees, but Gasko said they do that at their own expense.

The prison takes enlisted men from all branches of the service except the U.S. Navy. It takes all convicted officers, regardless of the length of the sentence.

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