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Old Fort Gets New Barracks -- for Prisoners

More than 400 men from all branches of the military are at Leavenworth. It looks like an office building and lacks guard towers.

March 23, 2003|Dick Lipsey | Associated Press Writer

FT. LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — It's the kind of place that the military never features in its recruiting efforts. But make no mistake, Ft. Leavenworth plays an important role for the armed services:

It's where they put their worst criminals.

The military has long used this fort as a prison, and now there is a maximum-security building on the property's northern edge.

Set on about 50 acres of rolling hills near the Missouri River, the new prison more resembles an office building than it does Alcatraz. It lacks the massive stone walls, six-story cell blocks and solid iron bars that the old prison had.

Its formal name is the United States Disciplinary Barracks, and within its brick, glass and razor wire are more than 400 men. Most of the prisoners, coming from all branches of the armed services, are Level III offenders, sentenced to more than seven years in confinement, Col. Colleen McGuire said.

McGuire, the prison's first female commandant, arrived in May, taking charge just in time to make the move from the 127-year-old stone fortress on the main part of the post.

"It was the oldest federal prison in the continental United States," she said.

The fort became a military prison in 1875, when a wooden fence was erected around several existing buildings. The fence soon was replaced by an imposing, 14-foot-high wall built of stone quarried on-site by prisoners.

After a series of improvements and renovations, the prison eventually held as many as 1,500 prisoners.

Some served their time quietly, while others made headlines.

There have been 26 executions here, including 14 in 1945, when 14 German prisoners of war, convicted of killing three other German POWs, were hanged from a gallows built in an old elevator shaft.

The most recent execution was in 1961, when Army Pvt. John Bennett was hanged for the 1954 rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old girl in Austria.

Other well-known inmates have included former Army Lt. William Calley and former Marine Sgt. Clayton Lonetree.

Calley, convicted of murder for his role in the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, spent three years in house detention at Ft. Benning, Ga., then served a few months in minimum-security at Leavenworth before his conviction was overturned and he was released in 1974.

Lonetree, a former embassy guard in Moscow and the only U.S. Marine ever convicted of spying, was released in February 1996 after serving less than nine years. His original sentence of 30 years was reduced to 15, then he got time off for good behavior. He was described as a model prisoner.

The new facility, designed to hold a maximum of 515 prisoners, now houses 440: 229 from the Army, 85 from the Air Force, 70 from the Marine Corps, 55 from the Navy and one from the Coast Guard.

All are men -- female offenders go to a Navy brig in Miramar, Calif. -- and 27 of them are, or were, officers.

Six are on death row, and 50 are serving life sentences, including five sentenced to life without parole.

The average sentence is slightly more than 18 years.

Compared with civilian prisoners in federal and state prisons, inmates here are an educated lot. Because of military enlistment standards, all have a high school degree or GED equivalency.

The average age is 35, and 52% are here for sex crimes. Another 6% are in for drug offenses, McGuire said.

The Army's 705th Military Police Battalion runs the prison, with some civilian help.

It's a good assignment, said 1st Sgt. Paul Dillman of Alpha Company.

"This is an opportunity to get the most experience in all aspects of corrections," said Dillman, who also worked at the old prison earlier in his career.

For most of the young soldiers who work at the prison, the job is their first experience in law enforcement, Dillman said. He estimated that about one-third of them leave the Army after their first enlistment, and many take jobs with police, sheriff's departments or prisons.

The prison itself is a high-tech marvel.

The main building, which includes the library, gymnasium, chapel and work areas, is monitored by closed-circuit television.

All soldiers and civilians who work inside carry a personal alarm and locator that tells guards where they are at all times, said Lt. Col. Peter Grande, the prison's chief of staff.

Unlike the old prison, which had shotgun-toting guards inside stone watchtowers atop massive walls, the new facility has no permanent towers. Its security relies on a double ring of 14-foot fences topped by razor wire, an intrusion-detection system and a roving patrol.

A cherry-picker hoists guards into the air so that they can keep watch over prisoners in the outside exercise areas, said Grande, a 28-year Army veteran with a master's degree in corrections.

Each prisoner has an individual cell with a small writing table, a bunk with a plastic storage bin beneath it for personal items and a metal toilet. The cells have high, narrow windows and solid doors with no bars. The solid doors help keep the noise down, Grande said.

Each cell also has an intercom that allows the prisoner to speak to a guard.

About 90 inmates work in a textile shop, repairing military equipment. Vocational training and a chance to take some college classes are available for most prisoners.

Such educational opportunities, along with the higher schooling level of military offenders, help prevent parole violations, McGuire said. About 10% of former Leavenworth inmates violate parole, she said, compared to more than 40% at other federal prisons.

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