Where rank has no privileges


Prison: Repeat offenders are rare at Fort Leavenworth, where Army lawbreakers serve their sentences.

November 29, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. -- In the stratified world of the U.S. military, a measure of equality is found behind these century-old granite walls. Colonels and privates are addressed by the same title. There is no snapping to attention, no salutes.

"That's a privilege. We don't afford that to them," says Army Col. Mike Lansing, commandant of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, known among those in uniform as simply "the DB."

Heading off to work stations in dark brown work clothes are full Army colonels and buck privates, Navy petty officers and Air Force sergeants. All 628 of them live together and answer to an identical rank: Inmate.

Throughout America there are towns whose names have become military shorthand. Annapolis. West Point. Another is Leavenworth, where the armed forces' only maximum-security prison was built on a bluff high above a bend in the Missouri River in 1875.

Soldiers with sentences longer than five years and one day end up here, while all officers serve their time in Leavenworth, rather than in regional military lockups.

The name sends a shiver through anyone in uniform and has become almost a throwaway line whenever fiction or film meet the military. A soldier in a foxhole gravely turns to a buddy pondering an illegal act: "Careful, Joe. Do that, and you'll wind up in Leavenworth."

Leavenworth's appearance is intimidating enough to square away a wayward grunt. Rimmed by worn gray walls, the DB is topped with endless ribbons of razor wire. Squatting in the middle is "The Castle," a stubby pencil of a building topped with a silver dome. Red-brick residential wings jut from all sides.

Seven inmates are on death row, although the last execution was a hanging in 1961. Fifty-four are serving life sentences, and 80 are confined to maximum security. Most -- about 350 -- are classified medium-security, and more than two dozen are trusted enough to work outside the walls of the fort.

But what goes on inside this fortress is less sinister than the fertile imagination of a foot soldier might suppose.

Violence among inmates is almost nonexistent, unlike in some state or federal prisons, officials say, even though more than two-thirds of the prisoners committed crimes against persons. All are first-time offenders, and their education level is higher, on average, than that of civilian criminals.

Despite their present military housing, the inmates -- who include 17 women and 41 officers -- retain some of their basic-training discipline, officials say. The DB puts a great emphasis on counseling them. There is little of the shouting or cursing that shower visitors in civilian prisons. Haircuts are required every two weeks.

"The quality of people is normally better than the federal system. You don't see a lot of repeat offenders," says David P. Sheldon, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents inmates here. But he and other advocates complain of a reduction in support and work programs over the years.

Lansing, a slight, soft-spoken and bespectacled officer, runs the prison with a $6.7 million annual budget. He commanded a brigade of military police in Germany and has been the DB's commandant since spring.

The colonel is "aggressive" in making sure the active-duty Army guards treat inmates with dignity.

"This is a safe prison," he says. "We run a very tight ship."

The prison's population has remained at about 1,000 to 1,400 throughout most of the century. In 1995, however, officials began transferring inmates to other federal prisons to reduce the population to 512 -- the cap for the new $63 million DB slated to open 1 1/2 miles away in spring 2001.

Meanwhile, tough questions are emerging about the safety of the DB's aging facilities as well as its 19th-century mission.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., last year allowed inmates to proceed with a lawsuit contending that some of the prison buildings dating to the early 1900s are structurally unsafe.

"[Prison officials] have fixed some things, but until the new prison is built they can't address some things at all," says Alison Ruttenberg, a Denver-based attorney representing the inmates. Some inmates have been injured by falling plaster and concrete, she says.

Lansing says he doesn't recall any such injuries. Two engineering firms have certified the structural integrity of the buildings, he says. "If I thought for one nanosecond it was unsafe, I'd get them out of here. That's a bogus argument."

Another argument comes from within the Army: Has the Leavenworth prison become obsolete?

"The DB has outlived its usefulness," wrote Lt. Col. Lawrence J. Morris, a professor at the Judge Advocate General's School in Charlottesville, Va., in 1996 for an article in the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.