Fort Hood shooter adds new chapter to military prison’s rich history
08/31/2013 4:43 PM
08/31/2013 11:20 PM
In wars past, a rogue soldier didn’t need to make headlines to be thrown into “The Castle” at Fort Leavenworth.
A then-unknown Rocky Graziano during World War II punched an officer and went AWOL. While serving a nine-month sentence at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Graziano honed the boxing skills that later made him a world champ.
Today the storied military prison houses some of the worst offenders ever to don a U.S. uniform, all serving at least 10-year sentences. The arrival of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, convicted in the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, brings the number of death row inmates to six.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales just checked in to begin his life sentence without parole for the murders of 16 civilians in Afghanistan.
Pvt. Bradley Manning was processed earlier in August. He faces a 35-year sentence for passing classified documents to WikiLeaks.
A legal fight might determine whether he stays. Manning’s insistence on serving his time as a woman named Chelsea clashes with the fact that the prison no longer takes female inmates.
Things have changed since the Disciplinary Barracks — commonly called the DB — served as a punch line on TV’s “M*A*S*H” or as the looming punishment for a sergeant’s romantic indiscretions in “From Here to Eternity.”
Only office space remnants exist of the old Castle, which once could hold 1,500 prisoners. Today’s facility, relocated, opened in 2002 — a $67 million, ultra-tech marvel with a camera in every cell and no bars on the windows.
The U.S. military’s only maximum security prison, it is home to about 450 inmates and has a capacity to take in 65 more.
“It is quite a modern-day wonder,” said Joe George of Hope Faith Ministries, who led religious services in both old and new facilities as a prison volunteer with the Church of Christ between 1986 and 2009.
For good reason, George said, the new prison is wired with the latest technologies to monitor inmates’ movements and thwart escape.
“Given the level of education and the training, even specialized training, that some of these inmates received in the military, they’re a unique population,” he said. “Security at the DB has to account for that.”
What has not changed over the decades is the mystique that surrounds the DB, where news media are rarely invited. Not even the post newspaper, The Lamp, is allowed to interview inmates or photograph them out on the prison grounds.
Fort Leavenworth emailed a quick reply to The Star’s request to visit the facility: “Right now the USDB is not doing interviews.”Death row
Hasan will spend his time by himself, segregated from a population that might relish getting its hands on the killer of 13 fellow service members.
In the special housing unit where Hasan is bound, the riskiest inmates are locked up 23 hours a day. According to a story by the Army News Service: “Every time one of these inmates move, two or three staff members are with them.”
Food is slid into these prisoners’ cells “through narrow slots, and a small window at the foot of each door lets the guards chain inmates’ ankles before they’re escorted out for showers or fresh air,” the news service said.
Hasan already may have been forced to shave his thick beard. Fort Leavenworth officials last week issued a statement saying all inmates, being considered soldiers, “must abide by Army Regulation 670-1,” which prohibits beards unless special exceptions are granted.
If the military carries out his execution, it won’t take place at Fort Leavenworth. Hasan would be transferred to the federal civilian penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., where Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh died from lethal injection in 2001 after his conviction in a civilian court.
Soldiers from the Fort Leavenworth barracks would carry out Hasan’s execution on the orders of the U.S. president.
The last execution of a DB inmate happened in 1961: Army Pvt. John A. Bennett, hanged for the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl.
Besides Hasan, five other inmates occupy death row at Fort Leavenworth:
• Ronald A. Gray, Army, convicted in 1988 on charges of murdering two people, attempted murder and robbery, among other crimes. President George W. Bush ordered his execution in 2008, but a federal court granted Gray a stay to allow appeals to take their course.
• Dwight J. Loving, Army, convicted in 1989 on charges stemming from a robbery spree that left two cabdrivers dead.
• Hasan K. Akbar, Army, convicted in 2005 of killing two soldiers and injuring 14 others. He had attacked his colleagues at a camp in Kuwait shortly after U.S. forces invaded Iraq.
• Andrew Witt, Air Force, convicted in 2005 in the murders of a fellow airman and his wife. His death sentence was recently overturned, although the military could still appeal.
• Timothy Hennis, Army, convicted in 2010 in the murders of a North Carolina woman and two of her daughters. The killings occurred in 1985, but Hennis’ conviction in a civilian court was thrown out on appeal. A court-martial at Fort Bragg sealed his fate.
The old Disciplinary Barracks also were home, for a short time, to Lt. William Calley, the former Army officer convicted for his role in the 1968 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.
Not all DB prisoners are confined to maximum security. Levels of custody range from the low-grade “installation trustee” to “minimum-inside only” to maximum.
But trouble can erupt anywhere.
Convicted murderer Michael Fricke was a trustee who had been incarcerated for 16 years when in 2010 an argument ensued on a recreational field. Another prisoner beat Fricke with a baseball bat. Fricke later died from the injuries.
Among those housed in today’s barracks is a group of combat soldiers known as the “Leavenworth 10,” jailed for crimes committed in a combat zone, including killing unarmed Iraqis. Their supporters argue the 10 were unjustly punished for defending their lives and their units amid the fog of war.
People outside Leavenworth often get confused as to which federal installation is which.
The DB never housed NFL quarterback Michael Vick, gangster Anthony Corallo or Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast. They served prison terms at the nearby U.S. Penitentiary.
A third federal facility in Leavenworth opened in 2010. The Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility, adjacent to the DB, can house 464 military prisoners serving sentences of up to 10 years.‘Your Future’
In the last few decades, the criminal sentences that could land a wrongdoer in the DB have climbed from a minimum of three years to five years and now to 10.
Despite housing a smaller, more hardened population than in the past, the prison sticks to a motto that stresses rehabilitation: “Our Mission, Your Future.”
Most inmates have jobs and many take college-level classes. A USDB brochure trumpets “individualized treatment to inmates to prepare them for a self-reliant, trustworthy and respectable future.” Vocational courses are offered in barbering, woodworking, welding and other fields. The prison has music rooms and libraries. Common areas have TVs and board games.
But unlike federal civilian prisons, the DB denies its inmates an email network to write to family members and lawyers, said Bill Cassara, a civilian defense lawyer.
He said he has more than 20 clients incarcerated at the barracks.
“The good and the bad about the DB is that, for 99 percent of the people there, this is their first (felony) conviction,” Cassara said. “If they’d been to prison before, the military wouldn’t have accepted them.
“They all have a high school education or better. All have been through military training. So it’s a higher quality of inmate. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have rapists, murderers and child molesters, because they’re in there.”
The guards are military too. Their backgrounds can either foster understanding with fellow service members doing hard time or produce friction.
Cassara said many of his clients, especially those who had previously served as officers, complain of “payback time” from lower-ranking military police who guard them.
“It’s human nature,” he said, for some guards “to make up for their frustration over the years” by bossing the inmates who once bossed them.
Former DB volunteer George said the inmates often carry a guilt that may be special to this prison.
“When you consider the oath that servicemen and women take, it’s supposed to be a position of high honor to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies,” George said.
But when a serious violation relegates a soldier to the DB, “that is not an honorable place to be.”
Their military futures turn bleak.
In a 1996 law journal article titled “Our Mission, No Future,” Retired Army Lt. Col. Lawrence J. Morris argued for the closing of the Disciplinary Barracks, in part because hard-core criminals were not likely to re-enter active military service. He said taxpayers would benefit if the inmates were moved into federal civilian prisons.
“My criticism isn’t that the DB is not a good jail. It sure is,” said Morris in a recent interview. “It’s just a fact that nobody serving a 10-year sentence ever goes back to duty. Why not consolidate resources?”
Last year, the DB — along with its neighboring military prison for lesser offenders — received perfect scores from the American Correctional Association. One ACA evaluator said she had given a 100 percent accreditation rating to only seven other prisons in 26 years.
No escapes have occurred in the 11 years of the modern DB. In the last couple of decades of the former barracks, eight inmates busted out, said John Reichley, a retired Army officer and past president of the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society.
“I loved the old place just because of the history there,” Reichley said.
He once taught a journalism course to inmates of The Castle and “was sky-high from the excitement of just being in there.”
“The new place is very antiseptic,” he said.
It’s brighter, though. The cells have windows that allow direct sunlight to stream in. Maybe good for the soul, Reichley said, but the morning rays bothered some prisoners who transferred from the old barracks.
They hadn’t woken up to a sunny cell in years.
Join the Discussion
The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.