New Leavenworth penitentiary book offers photo history

I am fascinated by the federal penitentiary, I confess to Ken LaMaster, historian of the big house in Leavenworth.

Does that make me weird?

“No, you know what? That probably makes you as normal as you will ever be,” LaMaster recently assured me. “I come home every day, and I see people standing across the street with that ‘Wow, I wonder what the inside looks like’ look on their face.”

Most of us will never see the inside of the limestone behemoth that is the federal pen. It’s not as if public tours are offered. We will never hear the slamming of heavy steel doors that lock prisoners “into the lion’s cage,” as LaMaster puts it.

As keeper of the penitentiary’s history, LaMaster has spent the last 25 years collecting photographs of the place. He has amassed about 1,200 photos so far and recently published some in a book,

U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth

($19.99, Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing).

“It’s a total history of the institution that is not really expressed in most books,” says LaMaster, 48, who lives in Leavenworth. “One of the things I wanted to do with this book was to take the everyday person who stands outside and take them inside.”

The photos span more than a century, from the late 1800s through 2004, from construction photos to mug shots of the pen’s more infamous “guests.” Many look scared out of their minds.

“They’re sitting there thinking to themselves, ‘Oh my God, I’m at Leavenworth,’ ” LaMaster says.

LaMaster has worked for the three prisons in the Leavenworth area since 1979. He began as a guard at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth and later became a corrections officer at the then-Kansas State Penitentiary.

Two years away from retirement, he now works for the food service operation at the federal penitentiary, where he has been since 1983.

Outsiders know the federal prison mostly for the notorious bad men who have called it home. The Birdman of Alcatraz. Gangsters “Machine Gun” Kelly and Frank “the Enforcer” Nitti. Oscar Collazo, who tried to assassinate President Harry Truman in 1950.

Disgraced NFL player Michael Vick is serving time there for his participation in dog fighting. Prison rules forbid LaMaster from mentioning current inmates in his book.

Outsiders also think of the penitentiary as a dangerous place, and it is. Seven guards have lost their lives there over the years. (LaMaster was stabbed once by an inmate at the military prison.) “Those guys are not there for singing too loud in church,” he says.

LaMaster likens the public’s fascination with the federal penitentiary to Elvis fans yearning for a glimpse of Graceland.

“It’s the unknown that drives the institution’s legend,” he says. “I think there’s a natural curiosity about places like that, a curiosity of the unknown and the untouchable.”

Or, in this case, untouchables?


What inmates listen to:

“They listen to everything you and I listen to,” says Ken LaMaster, historian of the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth. “Country in one cell, the next cell it’s rock, the next cell, hip-hop. I’ve even known some classical fans.”

How they play:

“They’re huge sports fanatics. It’s a release for them. One of the things I always tell people: ‘If you don’t give them something to do, they’ll find something.’ They have basketball, softball. We have had field hockey teams; we have soccer teams.”

What they surf:

Not the Internet — inmates are not allowed.

Who they see

: They’re allowed about 20 hours worth of visits a month. Conjugal visits have never been allowed.

What they eat with

: Plastic sporks. What about soup? “They do the best they can. They’re pretty creative,” LaMaster says.

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