"Solitary" (The Survey)




"Solitary" (The Survey)




Conscientious objection


Fort Leavenworth (KS)


Lane, Winthrop D.


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.









By Winthrop D. Lane of the SURVEY Staff

<emp ital>What kind of jailer is Uncle Sam? Ever since the war took four million young men out of civil life at the period when crimes and misdemeanors are most frequent, there have come stories of the treatment of the inmates of military prisons. There have been accusations of overcrowding and of mistreatment, particularly of political prisoners. To get at the truth of conditions, the National Civil Liberties Bureau and the SURVEY commissioned Mr. Lane to visit the three disciplinary barracks, two United States penitentiaries, several county jails and one state prison in which federal prisoners were confined. His instructions were to become as familiar as possible with the actual workings of these institutions and, in reporting on them to readers of the SURVEY, to present the good with the bad. His articles, of which this is the first, refrain from the conventional discussion of theories about criminals and the causes of their wrong-doing. They describe rather what men do in prison, how they live from day to day, how they are punished and what effect the punishment has on them, whether prison life prepares them for a renewed grappling with the world at large on their return.-- EDITOR. <emph>

I. The war has greatly augmented interest in our military prisons. People who a few months ago had never heard of these institutions are now asking what manner of places they are. Mothers whose boys went off proudly to France or to camp while men were still needed for fighting suddenly learned that their sons were now in prison. In prison! What did it mean? What kind of prison? What punishment were their sons receiving? How did Uncle Sam treat those who offered their lives for their country and then broke faith with the new environment in which they found themselves? The friends of conscientious objectors, too, heard stories of cruelties practised [sic], and demanded the truth.

Peace cannot lessen this interest. The men sent to our military prisons during the war are still there, with the exception of a few hundred who have received clemency. Others are arriving every day, for the army of the United States is still a large organization and, if present signs point true, will continue to be So long as a soldier exists, the military prison is an important feature of national life. Not only is it charged with rehabilitating hundreds of young me. It is in some measure a test of military enlightenment. It shows the discipline of the soldier. It tells us what the soldier thinks of his fellow man, for our conception of human nature is revealed by the methods we take to reform it.

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There are three military prisons in the United States. These are at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, Governor’s Island, N. Y., and Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay. Five years ago the name military prisons was dropped and disciplinary barracks was substituted, for the purpose of emphasizing the reformative rather than the penal character of the institutions. Punishment by abuse or violence was prohibited, except in the event of mutiny, escape or similar outbreak – and then only enough force could be used to restore order. Disciplinary organizations of prisoners, called battalions, were established to supply military training to those who, it was believed, could be made fit for military life and to enable them to be honorably restored to the army after serving only part of their terms. A department of psychiatry and sociology, established at Ft. Leavenworth, was expected to make possible a greater individualization of treatment. In all, the changes were so important that a disposition soon asserted itself to cease to regard these places as prisons, and to look upon them as schools for the teaching and discipline of errant soldiers. But they remained prisoners. Men could still be compelled to stand for nine hours a day with their wrists handcuffed to the doors of their cells in front of them, and they could be placed upon a diet of bread and water for fourteen consecutive days. All prisoners except those enrolled in the disciplinary battalions continued to be known by number, which they wore conspicuously in figures two and a half inches high on their breeches and coats. A fairly rigorous prison discipline still prevailed, stiffened at points by military requirement. “Hard labor” continued to be the purpose for which men were confined, and solitary cells remained a recognized and much used form of punishment. At Ft. Leavenworth, the only one of the three prisoners not situated on an island, most of the men who worked outside the walls continued to be accompanied by guards with shotguns. Life remained for the most part a barren stretch, and facilities for recreation and mental improvement were few and inadequate. With the exception of manacling the hands to the cell doors, all of these conditions exist today.

Anyone subject to military jurisdiction may be sent to these prisons. He may or may not have committed a purely military offence. He may have been absent without leave, disobeyed orders, been disrespectful or insubordinate, quitted his place of duty, been found asleep or drunk on post, deserted or committed any one of nearly two hundred specified military offenses. On the other hand, he may have stolen, committed murder, gambled, perjured himself, destroyed property, been guilty of sodomy or rape, or committed any offense for which a civil court would punish him. Before the war the great majority of men sent to these prisoners were military offenders, Conscription brought an increase in the number of those who had committed other kinds of crimes. The effect of this has been to bring together in the same institution men who are in no sense really criminals, men who committed crime under strong provocation, and men who are by every recognized test degenerates and perverts. It is as if the population of our civil prisoners had been turned into our military ones.


When I went to the disciplinary barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, I did so with the knowledge of the War Department. It was known that my purpose was to find out all that I could about the real workings of the institution. From the outset every facility for getting the facts was accorded to me. Colonel Sedgwick Rice, the commandant, gave me a pass that allowed me to roam the prison at will. I visited the prisoners at their work during the day and in their cells at night. I ate at their mess, played checkers with them in their wings and established friendships among them. Guards and sentries soon came to know me and opened doors and unlocked gates without compelling me to show my credentials. Records not ordinarily shown to outsiders were placed before me. Officers from Colonel Rice down gave me unstintedly [sic] of their time. No question that I asked was refused an answer.

This in itself was unusual. Ordinarily outsiders are not welcome in prisons. When admitted they are usually taken on quick tours and allowed to see only the surface. I had just come from visiting a number of Kansas jails into some of which I had fairly to break my way. Whatever else may be said about the barracks, I am convinced that Colonel Rice and his associates are entirely willing that the public should know what goes on there.

And let it be set down at once that brutality and repression do not reign. The spirit informing the barracks as a whole is not one of indifference to prisoners’ welfare. The prisoners are regarded as fundamentally human beings, capable for the most part of again becoming soldiers with an honorable status or of being returned to civil life as useful citizens. True, this attitude is not always shown in ways that convince the prisoners. Then, too, during the war several conditions existed making normal efficiency and the carrying out of formulated plans extremely difficult. Nevertheless, the barracks pioneering in some of the most useful activities of modern penology.

[caption to photo]

Behind the wooden door are bars

The board and blankets shown are the facilities granted for the sole respite from the monotony of solitary—sleep

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There are things about it that ought to be changed at once. Physical inadequacies exist that are a shame to the United States government. The machinery of repression is much in evidence, ever if the spirit is absent. The barrenness of the prisoners’ life defeats many of the better purposes of the institution. And instances of harsh and even brutal treatment have occurred, though these have been in defiance of, rather in accordance with, the administration’s policy.

Some of these general conditions of barracks life I shall attempt to describe in a second article. Here I propose to discuss a single feature of that life: the use of solitary confinement as a means of punishment.

[caption to photo] U. S. Disciplinary Barracks


It is true that prisoners are placed in solitary confinement on bread and water, for fourteen consecutive days and nights, and that this is a regular and prescribed form of punishment.

It is true that prisoners are frequently kept in these cells for second periods of fourteen days and nights, in addition to the first periods and following them without interruption. During such periods they are fed the regular diet.

It is true that third periods of confinement sometimes follow the second, during which prisoners are put back on bread and water.

It is true that three prisoners, whose experiences I verified, were within recent months confined in these cells for more than eight weeks continuously, and that one of them was so confined for ten weeks. That there are other instances I have no doubt.

It is true that these solitary cells, twenty in number, are closed cells, that is, they are equipped with heavy wooden doors that are shut the moment a prisoner enters. These doors are kept shut, day and night, throughout his confinement except at meal-times and daily count. The prisoner may not come out for exercise or for any other purpose except to take a bath, once a week. Light enters through two small screened transoms t the top and bottom of these doors. This light is sufficient, during the day, to enable the prisoner to distinguish the outlines of the bricks in his wall four feet opposite. It is not sufficient to read by and would do him no good if it were, since he is not permitted to have reading matter in his cell. The cell is four feet six inches wide, nine feet two inches long, and between eleven and twelve feet high. A small ventilator hole in the rear wall, near the ceiling, provides air that is usually fairly good, though occasionally it becomes stale and of bad odor. On one of my visits to these cells I counted seven out of sixteen that were occupied, in which the inmates had kicked out the lower screens in order to get a freer passage of air. Each cell is provided with running water, a stationary wash-bowl and toilet. For bed, the prisoner has only a large board and several blankets; he is entitled to six blankets under the rules, but sometimes the guard provides fewer. The prisoner places his board on the cement floor and puts as many blankets on top of it as he thinks he will not need for covering. There is a tin cup for drinking. Nothing else is in the cell, and here prisoners spend from two to ten weeks, with only bread and water to eat for a fortnight at a time, and with only their thoughts for company.

I spent one night in solitary confinement. This was trivial, of course, so far as an experience of the mental effects of solitary is concerned. Nevertheless, it gave me some idea of the physical aspects of such confinement. Captain Rousseau, an assistant in the executive office, supervised my descent into the “hole.” He issued careful instructions concerning the prisoner’s the prisoner’s outfit to be supplied to me, since I had decided to discard my civilian clothing. This outfit included a coarse but not uncomfortable undershirt and underdrawers [sic], socks, trousers, shirt, coat, shoes and cap. I was given also a bundle containing a toothbrush, a can of tooth powder, a comb, a towel, a piece of soap and two pairs of cloth gloves, all wrapped neatly in a blue bandanna. What the gloves were for I had no idea, nor do I know now. In spite of the carefulness of the instructions concerning my outfit, there was no belt for my trousers. In its place I used the heavy shoe string with which the bandanna was tied. This omission made it easy for me to believe the stories I had heard that sometimes, owing to the carelessness of employes [sic] in the store room, men in solitary are not given such desirable articles as toothbrushes and soap.

It was understood that my confinement was to be in all respects like that of a man sent to solitary for punishment and was to include bread and water for breakfast. After changing my clothes in the armory, I went to the solitary cells, accompanied by Captain Rousseau. These are in one of the so-called “basements” of the main cell building, though not actually underground. My worst fear as we crossed the prison yard was that I should pass an officer and forget to cross my arms in front of me, in the manner required of

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prisoners. As I entered the cell chosen for me the sentry in charge, who supposed me to be a recalcitrant prisoner, searched me. He then pointed out the board and blankets that I was to sleep on and the drinking cup that stood on a ledge in the grating at the front of the cell. Captain Rousseau left word that he would take me out in the morning and departed. The sentry now approached me again, with a pad and pencil in his hand, and asked what I was in solitary for. My mind failed to work quickly. “Didn’t Captain Rousseau tell you?” I asked, sparring for time. “No,” he answered, “he just said he would take you out in the morning;” then, as I hesitated – “Come on, I’ve got to write something down about you.” “Well, I’m in for impertinence,” I replied. “What’s your number?” he asked. I didn’t have a number. My mind was now active, however, and I said: “I am a garrison prisoner.” (It was a phrase I had heard.) Again he wrote something down and left me.

[caption to photo]

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

My cell was Number 138. It was, in all respects, such as I have described above. The solid wooden door was not immediately closed, though the inner grated door was closed and locked. I placed my board upon the floor and examined my blankets. A friendly officer had advised me, before entering, to look for bedbugs at once. This I tried to do, but the light from the corridor was so dim that obviously the search was doomed to failure. I decided that that battle would have to wait the actual appearance of the enemy.

The blankets were greasy in feeling but had no bad odor. Two of them were large and think, the others thin, being little more than strips of blanket material. There was the regulation number—six. Spreading four of these upon the board for my couch, I kept two for covering. I took off my shoes, cap and coat, opened my shirt at the front and lay down. My bed did not seem so uncomfortable as I had expected to find it.

Hardly had I lain down when a gong sounded and a guard shouted: “Attention! Stand up for the count.” I then knew why the wooden door had not been closed. They were waiting till the count had been taken. I arose and stood at the front of my cell, just inside the grating, with my arms folded. My friend, Captain Goodlett of the adjutant’s office, came hurriedly by. He gave me one perplexed glance, recognized me and passed on. Uncertain whether I was expected to stand until another gong announced that the count had been completed, I decided to risk this violation of rule, and again lay down. If I committed any offense, it apparently was not noticed, for nothing happened.

Shortly after the count a sentry came by and closed the wooden door of my cell. I could hear him closing the others also, these having been opened for the count. Ceremonies were over and our night in solitary had begun. It was about 9:15 when I entered the cell. A clock somewhere in the corridor struck ten before I went to sleep. I was surprised to find that the physical discomforts of the bed and of the cell did not seem as serious as I had expected to find them. Indeed, I have spent worse nights on the ground when camping. The air in the cell remained fairly good throughout the night and I did not find it necessary to kick out my lower screen, as some prisoners do.

At what time the bedbugs appeared I do not know; neither do I know how many of them there were; there were enough to annoy and awaken me at times, not enough to torment. Having spread my white towel over my coat for a pillow I was able, since I was lying with my head toward the lighter end of the cell, to detect those that crawled over this surface. From conversations with other prisoners I am convinced that I was lucky in not having to do battle with a greater number. One prisoner, in whose word I have confidence, told me that he had killed 103 the night before and then stopped counting.

I was awakened sometime during the night by a loud roar. Rising to my elbow, I lay listening. A second roar followed, closer than the first. Suddenly I recalled the fire in the quartermaster’s warehouse in the prisoner yard a few nights before, and wondered whether something of the sort had broken out again. A third roar followed, almost in my ears. I now remembered that I had heard that sixteen sticks of dynamite had been stolen a few days previously and that the prisoners were supposed to have secreted this somewhere; two or three officers had wondered when the dynamite would appear. Of course, I thought that it was now appearing and that one cell wing after another was being blown up. As I lay there waiting for the walls of my cell to fall in upon me, I reflected on the helplessness of my position. I could not escape; two doors barred all exit from my cell. Another stood at the end of the corridor, a fourth at the top of the stairway and a fifth at the exit from the building. Besides, there were

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numerous guards between me and the outside, ready to swing on me with clubs if I could miraculously pass the doors. While I debated on the blind fate that had induced me to choose this night to sleep in solitary, a rising, rushing sound caught my ears. It was continuous, not intermittent, like the roars. I suddenly realized that this was rain and that the roars I had heard were thunder: I was experiencing my first storm in solitary.

At a few minutes before six o’clock the gong waked us all up and a sentry shouted down the corridor: “Breakfast!” The dooden door of my cell was opened. Shortly two Negro prisoners appeared with food. One of them stopped in front of my cell and placed a tin plate and spoon under the grating on the floor. The other Negro came by with a large pan filled with a dark, messy substance. Standing in front of my door he said, “Prunes?” The rising inflection in his voice seemed to call for some response on my part. I did not immediately answer him, since I had been expecting bread and water for breakfast. Deciding that the orders had become mixed and that I was being offered food intended for prisoners who were waiting trial and had not yet been condemned to solitary confinement, I said, “Yes.” The Negro slapped a spoonful of the messy stuff down on my plate. I picked the plate up to examine it, but in the dim light I could make out nothing. Presently the other Negro came by with an armful of bread, cut into thick slices. Four of these he placed upon the steel ledge of my barred door. I took them off and tasted one of the inner slices. It did not seem as fresh as bread I had previously eaten at the prisoners’ mess.

Again one of the Negroes came by, this time with a large can of hot liquid. “Cup,” he said, inserting the spout through my barred door. I got my cup and held it for him. The hot liquid that he poured into it was evidently coffee. This was the first time that I had examined my cup. It was old, made of tin, and looked as if it had been used for years. What prisoners had drunk out of it and whether it had even been washed I could not tell. Apparently it was one of the fixtures of the cell, not being removed as were the plate and spoon. I decided to forego both the coffee and the prunes.

Had I been hungry, I could doubles have made a meal. Had I known that I must eat this food or nothing, I would undoubtedly have eaten it. The conditions under which it was presented to me were not appetizing, to say the least. Perhaps there are men in the disciplinary barracks who can eat food served to them under such conditions with something approaching relish. I have no doubt that there are many, however, who cannot eat it without preliminary shudders.

[caption to photo]

Six men in a cell because of the present overcrowding

This large cell has been made by throwing three ordinary cells together

After breakfast, the solid wooden door of my cell was closed and the day began. There being nothing else to do, I lay down on my blankets once more. I might have paced the floor, taking three steps in one direction and three back again, but a single night had not brought me to the pacing stage. I did not then know that the sun was shining outside. So far as the light that entered my cell was concerned, it might as well still have been night; there was no change from the light by which I had killed bedbugs some hours before. I tried to

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[caption to first photo]

“Locked” Cells

Normally used for a lower type of prisoner; under the present conditions such distinctions cannot be made imagine staying in this cell all day with nothing to do. I could, of course, count the bricks in my walls and do a few other things of that sort, but such possibilities would be soon exhausted. I tried to imagine staying there for several says and wondered how soon depression would come. Suppose the error concerning my food should be corrected and I should receive only bread and water the regulation died. How long would my stomach stand it? Finally, I tried to imagine staying there two weeks without exercise and without anything to occupy my time but my thoughts. In what state of mind would I be at the end? Would I be repentant, would my defiant spirit be tamed and docile, would I yield willingly to suggestion after that? Or would I be bitter and vengeful, would I come out with a permanent grudge, would I hate the authority that had thrust me into such a place and kept me so long? If so, what would be the effect of double that time—of four weeks, of six weeks, of eight weeks, of ten? I could not tell. My mind refused to take in the prospect. Whatever form of mental inactivity I should have to achieve to endure it, I felt certain that the experience would leave its mark permanently. I began to want to hit somebody—the inventor of solitary confinement or the first man who thought that human nature could be improved by such treatment.


Solitary confinement at Ft. Leavenworth is not an exceptional punishment. It is sixth in order of severity in the list of eight permissible punishments specified by the adjutant-general, the loss of a part or all of "good conduct time" being regarded as more severe. Yet the solitary cells are constantly in use. At no time during my two weeks' visit were there fewer than ten men in them, while the entire row of twenty cells is not infrequently filled. Last fall, when conscientious objectors who refused to work were placed in solitary the capacity of the cells was overtaxed. Between September 4 and September 30 sixty-four men were sent there; between November 4 and November 23, eighty-seven. At that time the population of the barracks was about 3,300. Single cells in another part of the building had to be brought into use to accommodate the overflow.

[caption to second photo]

“Open” Cells in tiers for the better type of prisoners The men are confined in this wing except when at work or at mess. They have no outdoor recreation, but may read, write, converse, an play checkers

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The offense for which men are most frequently placed in solitary is refusal to work. Undoubtedly this is a serious offense from the point of view of administration. Many men are sent to solitary, also, for "missing their gangs," that is, for failure to accompany their work squads to work. Sending out uncensored mail-"undergrounding letters "-is another misdemeanor for which men are sent to solitary. I learned of one prisoner who was recently confined for fourteen days on bread and water, for refusing to answer a question propounded to him by the Department of Psychiatry and Sociology. Men have been sent there for disrespect to the chief psychiatrist. There is no specified list of offences for which they may be sent to solitary. The regulations of the adjutant-general permit such punishment to be imposed for insolence, insubordination, disrespect, the "use of indecent or profane language"-for any "punishable offence", in short, for which a mere reprimand may be given. This means that whether or not solitary is used for trivial offences depends in part upon the character and previous conduct of the individual prisoner and in part upon the mood of the officer imposing punishment.

Before going to the barracks I had heard that men were confined in solitary for three, four and even five weeks. Desiring to verify these reports, I asked permission to consult the official records in the executive office. Presumably these showed the disciplinary history of each prisoner. After a search of an hour or so, almost at random, I had found the following instances of confinement for long periods:

Thomas Shotken, general prisoner No. 15063, was on November 3, 1918, sentenced to fourteen days in solitary, “nine hours standing or rock pile,” for “refusing to do any kind of work on November 4.” (The phrase “nine hours standing or rock pile” means that Shotken was given his choice of working on the rock pile during the day or of standing in his cell, handcuffed to the door. At that time the handcuffing had not been abolished.) His sentence began November 9. On November 23, exactly fourteen days later, he was again sentenced to fourteen days solitary, on full diet, nine hours standing or rock pile, for refusing to work. A third sentence was imposed on December 9, the diet again being bread and water. On December 23, a fourth sentence followed, on full diet. Shotken thus spent fifty-six out of fifty-eight consecutive days in solitary confinement. During twenty-eight of these he was given only bread and water. (Shotken is a conscientious objector.)

Jake Conovaloff was on October 21, 1918, sentenced to “fourteen days solitary, nine hours standing, bread and water, or rock pile” for “refusing to work.” On November 5, he was again sentenced. Successive sentences followed on November 19, December 3, and December 17. Conovaloff thus spent seventy consecutive days in solitary confinement. Fifty-six of these were on full diet. (Conovaloff is a conscientious objector.)

Joseph Fontaine was sentenced on November 20 to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “refusing to work.” He said, “I would not work on day shift anyway,” or words to that effect. On December 12 Fontaine was sentenced to five days in solitary, on bread and water, for “refusing to work on first gang this A.M.” He also “failed to report for duty this A. M.” Fontaine thus spent nineteen out of twenty-seven consecutive days in solitary on bread and water, a clear violation of the regulations of the adjutant-general. (These regulations will be cited later.)

Andrew Shubin, No. 14864, was on October 30, 1918, sentenced to fourteen days in solitary, “nine hours standing or rock pile,” for willfully refusing to work. On November 15, he was again sentenced to fourteen days, on full diet. A third sentence followed on November 29, special leniency being shown by a continuation of the full diet, specifically “corn flakes and milk.” On December 13, a fourth period in solitary was imposed and corn flakes and milk again allowed. The two days between the expiration of Shubin’s first period in solitary and the beginning of his second are doubtless accounted for by the words “two days in hospital” written across one of his record sheets. This also accounts, presumably, for the special diet. Shubin spent fifty-six out of fifty-eight consecutive days in solitary.

Jacob Wortman was sentenced on November 4 to “fourteen days solitary, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “missing his gang this A. M. without any cause” and “willfully refusing to do any kind of work.” On November 18, he was again sentenced, full diet being allowed him. A third sentence, on bread and water followed on December 2, and a fourth, on full diet, on December 16. Wortman thus spent fifty-six consecutive days in solitary, twenty-eight which were on bread and water.

Nathan Berkowitz was sentenced on November 17, 1918, to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “refusing to fold his arms at count when ordered to do so,” and being “guilty of direct defiance of orders of O. D.” On December 3, he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary on full diet (vegetarian) nine hours standing or rock pile” for “willfully refusing to do any kind of work at all.” On December 17 he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water” for “refusing to work.” He thus spent forty-two out of forty-four consecutive days in solitary, twenty-eight of which were on bread and water.

Evan W. Thomas, a conscientious objector, was admonished on November 5 for “talking in mess hall while marching from mess room this date.” On November 6, he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary, nine hours standing or rock pile,” presumably for “refusing to work.” On November 21, he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary on full diet, nine hours standing or rock pile,” presumably for refusing to work. On December 5, he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “wilfully refusing to do any kind of work at all.” Thomas thus spent forty-two consecutive days in solitary confinement.

Morris Kamman was sentenced on December 4 to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “wilfully refusing to work.” On December 19, he was again sentenced to “fourteen days solitary on full diet” for “wilfully refusing to do any kind of work at all.”

The officials of the barracks made no attempt to conceal these facts from me. They justify such excessive terms of solitary confinement (the longest I have found in any prison I have visited but one) under the “Regulations for the Government of the United States Disciplinary Barracks and its Branches,” published in a little blue pamphlet by the adjutant-general. The section that defines the uses of solitary is as follows:

32. A prisoner who violates any of the rules and regulations of the barracks, who is insolent, insubordinate, disrespectful, or disorderly, or who uses indecent or profane language, or commits any other punishable offence, will be tried by court-martial, if the gravity of the offence so demands, or will be disciplined by:

(a) Reprimand.

(b) Deprivation of a meal.

(c) Deprivation of tobacco privilege.

(d) Deprivation of letter privilege.

(e) Reduction in class.

(f) Solitary imprisonment on restricted diet.

(g) Solitary imprisonment on restricted diet and handcuffed to the door. 1

(h) Loss of part of good-conduct time.

(i) Loss of all good-conduct time.

Solitary confinement on bread and water will not exceed 14 consecutive days at any one period, and will not be repeated until an interval of 14 days shall have elapsed.

Now what does this language mean? Does it mean that a prisoner may be kept in solitary confinement indefinitely, under all of the restrictions of such confinement, provided only that during alternate periods of fourteen days he be taken off bread and water and given regular prisoner fare? That is the construction placed upon it at Ft. Leavenworth. Or does it mean that solitary confinement itself may continue only for fourteen days, and may not be repeated until an interval of fourteen days has elapsed?

I have asked eleven different people, none of whom was connected with the barracks in any way, what the language means. Only one gave the same construction as the barracks, and she was later inclined to doubt her own interpretation. Of the other ten, one thought that although the intention of the framer was clearly not in accord with this construction, a very literal and narrow reading of the words might so interpret it. The remaining nine thought that the section was meant to prohibit solitary confinement entirely for any period longer than fourteen days. One of these was a former dean of a law


1. This punishment was abolished by order of the War Department last December. The prison authorities have been criticized on the ground that the handcuffing was not actually abolished until six days after the order was issued. The facts are that the newspaper announcement of the order was given out in Washington on the morning of December 6 and published in the afternoon papers that day. The order to the commandants of the three disciplinary barracks was actually issued on December 9, and reached Ft. Leavenworth by mail December 12. The use of handcuffing ceased the day the official order was received.

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school and he was, perhaps, the most positive of all in this view.

It is difficult to see how the words can be taken otherwise. It will be noticed that solitary confinement on full diet is nowhere listed as a punishment. In view of the very specific enumeration of permissible punishments, it seems reasonable to suppose that this would have been included if it had been in the mind of the framer; especially if it had been thought of as an additional punishment to solitary confinement on restricted diet. It seems a likely interpretation that in the mind of the framer solitary confinement and restricted diet went together forming one punishment, and that it was not contemplated that one would be used without the other.

[caption to photo]

From a drawing by Murice Becker

Prisoners returning from work outside the walls.

There is an armed guard for every five of these men; this daily scene is one of the best evidences of the machinery of repression that still makes the “barracks” a prison

Even granting, however, that a reasonable canon of interpretation permits one to assume that if a given punishment is allowed, a less severe punishment of the same character may be used, we are face to face with the fact that fourteen days in solitary on full diet immediately following fourteen days on restricted diet is an addition to the severity of punishment; and when this is followed by still further periods of confinement, the increased severity goes beyond all bounds. Finally, we come to the last sentence. The phrase “on bread and water” is there used for the first time. Presumably this is simply explanatory of the phrase “restricted diet” used above, and has no further significance. (Actually the two mean the same thing at the barracks.) Instead, theretofore, of the last sentence meaning that bread and water may be continued for fourteen days and must not be repeated until a similar interval shall have elapsed, the more probable meaning is that solitary confinement itself may not exceed fourteen days, and the words “on bread and water” are used either as explaining “restricted diet” above or merely as constituting, in the mind of the framer, an invariable part of punishment in solitary, from which no departure would ever be made.

Strength is lent to this interpretation by the fact that at neither of the two branches of the barracks does the practice exist of keeping men in solitary for more than fourteen days.

It therefore seems probable that the Ft. Leavenworth barracks is violating the regulations of the adjutant-general.


Whether it is violating these regulations or not, it is subjecting men to a punishment, the effects of which it cannot accurately know and the severity of which it cannot wholly control. A term in solitary that means little to one man may be an ordeal to another; to a third it may cause the beginnings of a nervous breakdown. Little attention is paid to any such difference in temperament in prescribing solitary nor is the length of confinement suited to the offender, but rather to the offense. The department of psychiatry and sociology is not consulted as to which man would be benefited by solitary confinement. To be sure, a doctor visits the men in solitary once a day. Since this practice is not extended to the main body of prisoners, it may be regarded as an acknowledgement that solitary has its dangers. Moreover, the visits of the doctor are something of a hoke to the prisoners, who content that he cannot, or does not, detect the beginnings of a disturbance to the nervous system, or of that mental vacuity that is likely to follow days of isolation and idleness.

Nevertheless, the doctor’s visits are not unproductive of results. Records in the executive offie show that eleven men were transferred direct from solitary to the prison hospital in a period of two months last fall. One of these records bear the following notation:

To solitary To hospital

10—2—18 11—5—18

11—10—18 11—22—18

When I asked what this meant, I was told that the prisoner had entered solitary October 2, 1918; that he had been transferred from his solitary cell to the hospital November 5; that

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on November 10 he had been returned from the hospital to solitary; and that he had been transferred to the hospital again on November 22.


What is the theory underlying solitary confinement? In pietistic communities, where prisons are apt to be harsher than elsewhere, men were formerly placed in solitary in the belief that they needed an opportunity to commune with their God, and that such communion, to be effective, had to be silent and alone. This belief ran counter, of course, to the practice of the churches in those communities where God was worshiped publicly by groups. Today we do not resort to such ecclesiastical camouflage. Solitary confinement is punishment, pure and simple.

Undoubtedly it is an effective aid to administration. It is the keeper’s friend, par excellence. He uses it, much as a machinist uses oil, to keep the machinery of his routine running smoothly. If a disobedient prisoner can be placed at once in solitary, where food is shoved into him and no communication with others is possible, the troubles of the warden are at an end. A man cannot be insolent to his tin cup and the bricks of his wall are unmoved by profanity.

But what, meanwhile, is it doing for the prisoner? A friendly officer advised me, before I spent my night in solitary, to put myself into the state of mind of a sulky child. I tried, but found that the state of mind of a sulky child had apparently become impossible to me some twenty years ago. Unfortunately, there are no prisoners at Ft. Leavenworth under twenty-one years of age. Doubtless a few of these had children’s minds, but solitary confinement is not restricted to them. I have yet to find the man who thinks that he was placed in solitary justly. Such men may exist; in the course of a year in a large prison they may not be altogether infrequent. But for the most part men who are sent to solitary nurse permanent grudges against those who sent them there. It is safe to say that many a professional career of crime has begun in the embittered feelings produced by solitary confinement.

Some men subjected to this punishment resent it as they would resent the whip. To such men the very presence of solitary cells in a prison is a taunt and an insult. They may not think straight; they may forget that not all men are alike, and that some apparently need a greater measure of physical coercion than others. But for themselves they cannot be mistaken. Moreover, it has never yet been proved, so far as I know, that men who are capable of being won to better ways of living have been permanently so won by physical indignities. They may have been on by the disgrace and ostracism that sometimes accompany physical indignity, but the indignity itself is another question. And in prisoner no disgrace attaches to going to the “hole,” so far as one’s social equals are concerned.

The method of solitary confinement is the method of the bludgeon. It has no delicacy or finesse. It does not ask, “Why was this man insolent?” or “Why did that man refuse to work?” or “Why did this man disobey?” It merely establishes the fact and then imposes the penalty. It commits the age-old blunder of making the penalty fit the offense and not the offender. It does not seek the causes of prisoners’ misconduct. It forgets that men are in prison largely because they have not found it easy to conform to social custom. It forgets that many of them are inadequate personalities, men whose emotions are unstable, whose minds are unformed, whose hands have not acquired the habit of regular work. And it expects them to be able suddenly to live up to a routine far more rigorous than any imposed upon them outside.

To be sure, prisoners at Ft. Leavenworth are tried before they are sent to solitary confinement. They are given a chance to defend themselves. But the trial is conducted by a disciplinarian, the executive officer. Three men have held this position in the past six months, none of whom knows anything of psychiatry and the underlying causes of misconduct. The purpose of the trials is to establish the naked question of guilt or innocence. One of these officers boasted to me that he had tried two hundred and fifty men in an afternoon. No office charged with the discipline of men at the Fort Leavenworth Barracks ever spent five minutes in a solitary cell. I doubt if any of them ever tried to imagine the effect upon the human mind of days and nights spent unoccupied in dark, cramped, vermin-ridden solitary confinement.

There is an excellent department of psychiatry and sociology at the barracks, at present in the hands of a noted psychiatrist, Colonel King. Dr. King and his staff have not yet concerned themselves with the uses of solitary confinement, but, as the scope of the department widens, ultimately it may have charge of punishment/. That, however, will call for a revolution in military institutions.

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In a second article on Fort Leavenworth, Mr. Lane will describe some of the conditions under which the main body of prisoners live.


Lane, Winthrop D., “"Solitary" (The Survey),” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed November 21, 2019, https://cosandgreatwar.swarthmore.edu/items/show/852.

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