Abandoned Building Was First Intentionally Built Naval Prison in US

Prison bars held by hands.

For probably hundreds of years, seafaring miscreants endured a different kind of criminal justice than land-bound wrong-doers did, but that began changing after the United States' first Naval prison was built on Mare Island in the 1860s.

That structure -- also known as Building 84 -- still stands, but won't much longer if Lennar Mare Island (LMI), the island's main developer, follows through on plans to raze the building. Lennar officials have expressed concern over polychlorinated biphenyls in the aging structure.

"In 2005 all the historic resources on the island were categorized and LMI recommended the prison be retained and converted into an apartment building or condos," LMI spokesman Edward Moser said. "But, even before that, LMI and the Navy were doing work to prepare it for reuse."

Since then, cleanup to an unrestricted standard has been achieved, but the indoor air quality issues "can't be sufficiently remediated to state residential reuse standards," Moser said. "The source of the PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls -- is unknown, but, having removed everything else, we believe it's likely the building materials themselves."

Lennar Mare Island has therefore submitted a proposal to demolish the old "brig," and work with the city to evaluate options in view of the building's history, state requirements and the Mare Island Specific Plan, he said.

Island's first military prison

Moser said some histories of the island suggest the former Marine barracks, which have since been torn down, was really the island's first military prison.

The United States Department of Interior National Park Service National Register of Historic Places notes that "the Marne Corps barracks and prison was located a the site of building 866. A long outhouse was built behind and west of the prison in 1874 and was expanded into an H-shaped feature in the 1880s." The structure was abandoned in the 1890s, it says.

"The Mare Island Prison was the first purpose-built (Naval) one in the country," Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum Executive Director Jim Kern said. "I'm not a great expert on the subject of corporal punishment in the Navy, but I do know that prior to the construction of military prisons, punishments such as flogging or whipping were common. These were meted out at the discretion of the ship's captain. Another particularly grim punishment was keelhauling, where the offender would be tied to a rope, thrown overboard, and then dragged along the barnacle encrusted keel of the ship, either side to side or bow to stern. The sharp barnacles inflicted severe lacerations, and drowning was also a distinct possibility. This probably wasn't officially practiced by the U.S. Navy, but it does illustrate that punishment, rather than rehabilitation, was the norm in those days."

Punishments for sailors

The prison on Mare Island was the first structure designed and built in the United States as a Navy prison, Vallejo resident, Architectural Commissioner and former Associated Press reporter Brendan Riley wrote after researching the matter.

"It represented a major reform in Navy disciplinary methods following President Millard Fillmore's Sept. 28, 1850, signing of a congressional ban on use of the 'cat o' nine tails' to flog sailors for offenses," he said.

Though not taking sides on the matter, Riley's research material was submitted to the City of Vallejo, for inclusion in the file on the Lennar Mare Island application to tear down the old prison.

The anti-flogging legislation barely passed, with proponents calling it a swift and effective form of discipline, as opposed to confinement, which reduced a ship's crew size, impacting safety, increasing workloads of other, innocent sailors, and negatively affecting shipboard morale.

While Congress abolished flogging, it didn't create a uniform disciplinary system or outlaw other harsh forms of corporal punishment.

"Naval officers tried alternatives including tattooing, branding, wearing signs of disgrace, confinement in sweat boxes, lashing with thumbs behind the back, tricing up by the wrists, continuous dousing with sea water, straitjackets, wearing a ball and chain, and confinement in irons on bread and water," Riley wrote. A system of punishments and rewards for good behavior was adopted in 1855, he writes.

"But even with the various changes, there was considerable inconsistency in punishments, and the need for land-based prisons as a primary discipline tool remained," the research says. "The result, described in detail in retired Navy Capt. Rodney K. Watterson's 2014 book, "Whips to Walls," was the formal establishment of the naval prison system in 1888. That step formalized what already had been pioneered on Mare Island in the early 1870s." Known as "Old 84," the Naval Prison on Mare Island was the only maximum security facility on the West Coast, which at its height held 650 Navy and Marine inmates. "The real bad dudes would be sent to San Quentin," Riley said.

Orders to build a prison at the Marine barracks on Mare Island were reported in a July 13, 1868, San Francisco Bulletin article.

A one-story, 16-bed structure was completed in the early 1870s, and was described in an April 1872 Scribners Monthly article as "a fine prison," Riley's material says. It was built on the same site as a previous Spanish prison, according to the Dec. 1947 edition of All Hands, The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin.

Expansion, escape attempts at the prison

Plagued by overcrowding, the prison was expanded several times -- once in the early 1890s with a second-floor addition and again in the early 1900s to included a tower and two-story wing. This increased the prisoner capacity to 52, and expansions continued to the point that the prison could hold about 650 inmates.

"The Navy's Portsmouth, N.H., Naval Prison, commissioned in 1908, was the largest, with more than 3,000 inmates at the end of World War II," Riley wrote. "By the time it closed in 1946 after about 75 years of service, the Mare Island prison was down to 71 inmates." Old 84's reputation was as among the toughest federal prisons to which sailors and Marines could be sent.

"A search of various newspaper files shows numerous accounts of escape attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, by inmates desperate to flee from the prison," Riley writes. As the prison grew to try to keep up with an increasing inmate population, accounts of escape attempts were reported in various publications, he writes. "A Nov. 23, 1893, San Francisco Call report told of how three inmates assigned to do some cleaning up and painting in the prison tower cut through bars in the tower, used hammock rope to lower themselves about 40 feet to the ground, and swam across the Mare Island Strait to Vallejo --one of them saved by the other two after nearly drowning," Riley wrote. "They hopped a freight train to San Francisco and stowed away on a steamer bound for Canada."

Such stories abound, and cropped up periodically even through World War II, he found.

"A Jan. 5, 1945, story in the Mare Island Grapevine told of how two prisoners working in a wood yard on the Navy base changed into civilian clothes they found in a wash room, threatened a sailor with a hammer and then headed for Sears Point Road. The sailor alerted authorities who caught up with the prisoners before they got off the island," he wrote.

One report was of human bones found in a prison sewer pipe during renovations after the war.

The news about the prison wasn't all bad, though, Riley found.

"Other Grapevine stories told of English, math and trade classes for inmates, as well as a prison dairy farm that numbered as many as 50 cows," he wrote. "The cows were consistent winners in competitions supervised by the California College of Agriculture. The prison farm provided dairy products as well as vegetables in season for all shipyard quarters." Besides the farm work, Riley's research found that inmate trusties served as messengers for the Marines and prisoners cleaned shipyard streets with brooms, shovels and wheelbarrows.

"Civilian shipyard workers were warned to never get between the inmates and the armed Marines guarding them," he wrote.

Aftermath of prison closing

After the prison closed, an innovative Navy retraining command took its place, the research revealed. Instead of prison cells, court-martialed sailors and Marines were housed in buildings near the old prison.

"According to a July 11, 1952 Grapevine article, they went through a lengthy retraining program which, if completed successfully, enabled them to earn an honorable discharge or return to regular military service," he wrote. "In 1953, that program which started in August 1946 was transferred to Camp Elliott, San Diego."

Ol' 84 was converted into a warehouse in the late 1940s, Moser said.

Show Full Article

Related Topics

Navy