For more than 100 years, the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Ks., known as “The Big House,” has housed some of the nation's worst criminals. The walled behemoth is about to lose the mystique, says the Kansas City Star. The federal Bureau of Prisons plans to convert the maximum-security prison, which holds 1,511 inmates, to medium security. Local officials, who have grudgingly accepted the decision, have been told the transition will mean up to 106 of its 474 positions could be lost.
The move reflects the changing technology of incarceration. The prison was built when confinement relied on armed guard towers and walls 40 feet high – and just as deep, says prison lore, to prevent tunneling. Modern facilities have incorporated electronic surveillance and operating systems that keep guards safer, reduce the potential for inmate uprisings, and largely eliminate escapes. The Leavenworth penitentiary dates to 1897, when 17 teams of mules and at least 300 inmates from Fort Leavenworth's military prison marched to a neighboring site to begin construction. Robert Stroud studied birds at Leavenworth before a transfer left him with the nickname “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Today, the prison houses infamous criminals, including convicted killer and American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier. A “super max” facility in Colorado now houses some of the nation's worst criminals.