Whips to Walls

Naval Discipline from Flogging to Progressive Era Reform at Portsmouth Prison

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Overview

The abolishment of flogging in 1850 started the U.S. Navy on a quest for a prison system that culminated with the opening of Portsmouth Naval Prison in 1908. During World War I, that prison became the center of the Navy’s attempt to reform what many considered outdated means of punishment. Driven by Progressive Era ideals and led by Thomas Mott Osborne, cell doors remained opened, inmates governed themselves, and thousands of rehabilitated prisoners were returned to the fleet. Championed by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt, Osborne’s reforms proceeded positively until Vice Adm. William. Sims and others became convinced that too many troublemakers were being returned to the fleet. In response, FDR led an on-site investigation of conditions at Portsmouth prison, which included charges of gross mismanagement and rampant homosexual activity. Although exonerated, Osborne resigned and initiatives were quickly reversed as the Navy returned to a harsher system.

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