Model of Marine punishment Discipline: For Quantico brig prisoners who may never wear a uniform again, the irony of their prison is the military regimen they live under.

July 22, 1997|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

QUANTICO, Va. -- In the hills of Northern Virginia, a brick building with the slanted roof of a suburban rancher rises from Civil War battlefields. It may be the world's most well-behaved prison.

Marines run it, so there is little dirt or laughter. Prisoners file down dustless hallways in formation, saluting their keepers as they pass. Uzbek and Czech jailers visit for tips. And, recently, Aberdeen drill sergeants and Naval Academy midshipmen have been among its most celebrated inmates.

The Northeastern Regional Brig, tucked in a corner of this historic Marine post among elm and maple stands, has all the antiseptic charm of a psychiatric ward. And its regimen and rules, down to how many pencils and photographs an inmate may keep in a footlocker, impose a relentless brand of military punishment.

"I think they try to make you as miserable as you can be while you are there," said a former Naval Academy midshipman who served three months in the brig last year on drug charges. "They were really nit-picky. But looking back on it, it was jail."

The brig is a world apart from civilian prison.

City jails have their spitting inmates, jail-yard gangs, needy drug addicts and mysterious food. Quantico's three hallways shine under bright lights and smell of floor wax. Only the eerie tinkle of leg irons and shouted commands break the silence. The cook won a competition for his creations.

While clean and safe, the brig demands vigilance from the 150 military inmates who fill its high-ceiling dorms and dim cells. Though most will never serve a day in uniform again, they abide by a military routine that wakes them up at 5 a.m., puts most of them to work on the base grounds all day and forces them into bed by 10 p.m.

"Sometimes," said the former midshipman, "they would send us into the woods with lawn mowers. Just for something to do."

The rules are endless. No touching your bed, or "rack," during working hours -- even if you're not working. No more than 20 personal photos in a cell. Even underwear must be accounted for.

Chief Warrant Officer James M. Hart, who retired at age 40 last month as commanding officer, said the brig may be a jail but it's also a military operation. "The military prisoner has already been through a structured program," he said. "They've had a shot of discipline before."

The brig at Quantico, 35 miles south of Washington, takes military prisoners from New England and most of the mid-Atlantic states. Five years is the maximum stay. Prisoners with longer sentences go to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

A sentence begins with the locks on a red steel door, or "the front hatch," clicking open and the shackled prisoner led inside. To the right is the holding cell, a Spartan room with a cement floor, a bench and a single ceiling light in the corner.

Drunken prisoners are turned away until sober, returned to the holding cells of the military police. Hart says: "We are not a hospital."

Next prisoners strip for "scars and marks" evaluations. To protect against any later claims of abuse, jailers note all cuts, bruises and tattoos. The prisoners are then given prison jumpsuits -- blue if they are awaiting trial, orange if they are convicts.

From there, it's a haircut in the brig's barber chair. The style -- that is, the length -- is dictated by the specific regulation of each service branch. The brig has inmates from all four; Navy and Air Force allow for the longest.

Every prisoner spends the first two weeks in Special Quarters 1, a cellblock down one of the T-shaped prison's three corridors that join at the command center. This resembles a cashier's booth at a gas station, with tinted glass and closed-circuit monitors. It is the last post evacuated during emergencies.

Special Quarters 1 is a bleak but spotless warren of cells that holds the violent, the suicidal and the officers who are inmates. The cells are 6-by-8 feet and furnished with a cot, a plastic chair, a footlocker and a stainless steel toilet.

The light is almost too dim to read by, but regulations do not allow for sleep between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.

"A lot of times you just sit there, to be quite honest," said the midshipman, who served in special quarters because he was classified as an officer. "You just stare into space."

Visitors moving though the dark halls catch glimpses of people inside, sitting on the small chairs. These are "maximum in"

prisoners, never let out without handcuffs, leg irons and two escorts. They do not work.

Former Aberdeen drill instructor Delmar G. Simpson spent six months in Quantico's Special Quarters 1 before his rape trial. His lawyers argued that the routine, which required shackling him for the 11 steps it took to get to his morning shower, constituted punishment before verdict.

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