Military Prison at Fort Leavenworth

Fort Leavenworth gated entrance

 Julie Denesha / Getty Images

There are two kinds of soldiers at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas — the ones with no rank or pay, and those with keys.

The USDB, unofficially called "The Castle," is the only maximum-security prison within the Department of Defense. It's limited to male inmates only; female felons are locked away at the Naval Consolidated Brig in San Diego. 

A stay at Leavenworth is unlike any other prison; for the most part, prisoners are safer here then they would be in the general population of a maximum security prison. But that doesn't mean they're enjoying their stay.

Confinement at Leavenworth

Custody grades for military prisoners include installation trusty, minimum, minimum inside only, medium, and maximum.

The special housing unit is reserved for inmates who could be locked up 23 hours a day. Food is slid into cells through narrow slots, and a small window at the foot of each door lets the guards, aka correctional specialists, chain inmates’ ankles before they’re escorted out for showers or fresh air.

Every time one of these inmates moves, two or three staff members are with them. The correctional specialists actually have more contact with maximum-security inmates than those who pose fewer risks.

Despite prospects of moving to a lower custody grade for good behavior, some inmates remain in maximum security for most of their stay.

The staff’s intent is for all inmates to join the general population. Medium- and minimum-security areas contain large open spaces where inmates may spend free time.

Rehabilitation for Leavenworth Prisoners

Prison isn’t forever for most inmates. While counting off the days and years until their release, inmates can participate in as many as 13 treatment programs that focus on self-growth.

Inmates also have access to traditional education programs and vocational work details. Apprenticeship programs include carpentry, dental assistance, graphic design, screen printing, and welding.

Work details are offered in embroidery, textile repair, graphic arts, and woodwork. The state of Kansas also offers licensing in barbering, and some details allow inmates to earn between 14 and 80 cents an hour.

Guards at Leavenworth Prison

Reason and unarmed self-defense are guards’ sole weapons, as guns aren’t allowed inside prison walls.

All soldiers assigned to the USDB receive additional training before taking charge of security. Among the lessons they learn are techniques for observing prisoner behaviors that may indicate potential problems.

Correctional specialists must know how to de-escalate any situation an inmate could provoke, whether it’s directed toward the staff or another inmate.

While guards aren’t fill-ins for psychiatric experts, they’re observant enough to provide details to mental-health specialists who arrive on site to help disturbed inmates.

Population of Leavenworth Prison

The prison benefits from the fact that every inmate has had some military discipline before he arrives. With the rare exception, they aren’t career criminals.

The Leavenworth community is no stranger to prisons. In addition to the USDB, the city hosts a federal maximum-security penitentiary, the Lansing Correctional Facility, and a privately operated prison called the Corrections Corporation of America.

The USDB has operated since 1875.