Whips to Walls
Naval Discipline from Flogging to Progressive Era Reform at Portsmouth Prison
Rodney K. Watterson
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During World War I, the United States Navy conducted at the Portsmouth, NH Naval Prison what many penal scholars consider the most ambitious experiment in the history of progressive prison reform. Cell doors remained opened, prisoners governed themselves and thousands of rehabilitated prisoners were returned to the fleet. This humanitarian experiment at Portsmouth prison stood in stark contrast to the inhumane flogging of prisoners that had dominated naval discipline until 1850. The Navy’s journey between these two extremes in naval discipline included the development of a much needed naval prison system.
When congress abolished flogging in 1850, the Navy was left with few punishment options. Flogging had been a harsh, but very effective and efficient discipline tool. Various conditions of confinement appeared to be the most logical substitute for flogging, but the Navy had few cells ashore and confinement onboard a nineteenth century man-of-war sailing vessel was impractical. Onboard space was limited and all hands were needed to sail and fight the ship. Subsequent naval directives that merely suggested punishments for various offenses led to inconsistent interpretation and application of punishments throughout the fleet. At the same time, courts-martial prisoners were sporadically confined in various marine barracks, navy yard jails, naval station guard houses, prison ships and state prisons. The Navy’s discipline system was in disarray. A naval prison system was needed to consolidate and provide for consistent treatment of prisoners.
The Navy’s efforts to gain congressional approval for a prison in the 1870s were unsuccessful. In the late 1880s, the Navy took matters into its own hands and established a prison system centered on makeshift prisons at the Boston and Mare Island Navy Yards. An ever-increasing need for cells, primarily driven by high desertion rates, eventually resulted in the construction of the Navy’s first real prison at Portsmouth, which opened in 1908. A consolidation of naval prisons in 1914 left Portsmouth as the dominant centerpiece of the naval prison system.
At this point Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose the most celebrated prison reformer of his era, Thomas Mott Osborne, to assume command of the Portsmouth prison. His reforms at Portsmouth went well until Vice Adm. William S. Sims and others became convinced that too many trouble makers were being returned to the fleet. Under mounting pressure from senior naval officers, FDR personally led an on-site investigation of conditions at Portsmouth prison, which included charges of gross mismanagement and rampant homosexual activity. Although exonerated by FDR’s team, Osborne resigned from the Navy shortly after the investigation. Osborne’s reform initiatives were quickly reversed as the Navy returned to a harsher punishment system more inclined toward deterrence than humanitarian considerations and prisoner comforts.