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"Solitary" (The Survey)

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[page 2]

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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