Heavenly Days at the Hellish Portsmouth Naval Prison
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 2
Secrets breed rumors and no seacoast spot is more enigmatic than the towering cement prison at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Shuttered now for 40 years, it is off-limits to all visitors on a secured island inside a guarded federal facility. There it crumbles and rusts, unlikely ever to be used again. (Click title for entire article.)
So we know precious little about the 86,000 prisoners who lived and died inside "The Castle" in its 66 years of operation. Too often all we hear are rumors of three-foot long rats prowling the hundreds of dark empty cells, or imagined tales from so-called paranormal "researchers." Then there is that unkillable myth that says the building inspired Walt Disney’s design for Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom. It's not true.
The prison was built between 1905 and 1908 on the former Revolutionary War site of Fort Sullivan. It was the first prison in the nation designed specifically to house convicted criminals from the U.S. Navy and later the Marines. It is true that actor Humphrey Bogart delivered a prisoner to Portsmouth Naval Prison during World War II. Bogart himself served a brief term in stir while in the Navy, but not at Portsmouth. And while it is also true that the characters in the 1973 Jack Nicholson film The Last Detail were on their way to deliver a prisoner to Portsmouth, the movie was not filmed there.
From whips to walls
This year there is a crack in those old prison walls. A ray of sunshine has broken in. Historian Rod Watterson's upcoming book sheds light on the amazing and little-known period when life was good inside the Castle.
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It didn't last long. During World War I prisoner reformer Thomas Mott Osborne turned Portsmouth Prison into a model community in which convicts nearly guarded and governed themselves. A liberal visionary, Osborne believed that every prisoner could be rehabilitated if treated humanely. But Osborne was also stubborn and had little respect for naval bureaucracy and the conservative military chain of command. Soon after the war ended, Osborne was gone and the harsh penal system for which Portsmouth is known returned with a vengeance.
Watterson's forthcoming book is called Whips to Walls: Naval Discipline from Flogging to Progressive Discipline at Portsmouth Prison (1850-1920). Flogging or lashing sailors on the bare back was a time-honored maritime tradition that occurred almost daily until the practice was abolished in 1850, the author points out. (The Navy also terminated its daily grog ration to sailors in 1862.) Adapting from corporal punishment to confining offenders in jails was not an easy transition for the Navy.
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