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Portsmouth Naval Prison in 2006

Portsmouth Naval Prison is a former U.S. Navy and Marine Corps prison on the grounds of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (PNS) in Kittery, Maine. The building has the appearance of a castle. The reinforced concrete naval prison was occupied from 1908 until 1974.

Fort Sullivan & Camp Long[]

The island site was first used in 1775 during the Revolution when the New Hampshire militia, commanded by General John Sullivan, constructed an earthwork defense called Fort Sullivan atop the bluff. In conjunction with Fort Washington across the Piscataqua River on Pierce Island, it guarded the channel to Portsmouth. The militia withdrew about three years later. The fort was reactivated for the British–American War in 1814. In 1863, it was rebuilt to protect Portsmouth against attacks by the Confederate navy. After 1866, Fort Sullivan was dismantled. Camp Long, named for Secretary of the Navy John Long, was erected nearby during the Spanish-American War. From July 11 to mid-September in 1898, the stockade housed 1,612 Spanish prisoners, including Admiral Pascual Cervera, until returned to Spain.[1]

"Alcatraz of the East"[]

Prison from across river, c. 1913

When Camp Long was dismantled in 1901, the site became available for a naval prison. Constructed between 1905–1908, the brig was modeled after Alcatraz, set on an island with tidal currents to deter escape. Colonel Kelton of the Marine Corps was in command when the first Navy prisoners arrived in 1908. It would eventually house Marine inmates as well. The central crenellated tower, roofed in copper, was erected in 1912. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Osbourne assumed command in 1917. Called "the Father of Naval Corrections," Osbourne and 2 others went undercover in the prison to see what changes needed to be made, including living conditions. During World War I, the prison housed wartime convicts, reaching a maximum of 2,295 in 1918. Two wings were added—in 1942 the northeast wing, and in 1943 the unornamented southwest wing, dubbed "the Fortress," which rises sheer beside the rocky shore. Maximum occupancy reached 3,088 in 1945.[1]

Office of Naval Intelligence[]

After German surrender ended World War II fighting in Europe on May 5, 1945, U-boats surrendering to United States naval forces were escorted to Portsmouth so engineers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard might study their design features. U-805, U-873, U-1228 and U-234 were towed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard between 15 and 19 May. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) had interrogators available to question the submarine crewmen at the prison. The interrogations were classified at the time because of potential military value of information collected about German submarine, jet aircraft, ballistic missile, guided bomb, and nuclear weapons technology. U-234 had been bound for Japan carrying 1,232 lb (559 kg) of uranium oxide, a disassembled Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter, tons of prototypes and technical documents relating to new weapons, and several senior weapons technicians.[2] The commanding officer of U-873 had conducted submarine-launched ballistic missile experiments with his brother Ernst Steinhoff, who was Director for Flight Mechanics, Ballistics, Guidance Control, and Instrumentation at the Peenemünde Army Research Center. Kapitänleutnant Friedrich Steinhoff was slapped by a large, husky Marine guard until his face was swollen and bleeding, and died in a Charles Street Jail cell after two days of interrogation.[3] Despite subsequent declassification of documents, it is unclear if ONI realized Steinhoff's ballistic missile connections. Similar uncertainty remains about disposal of the uranium oxide aboard U-234.[4]

There was inadequate preparation to deal with the arriving U-boats. United States Navy prize crews scattered possessions of the U-boat crewmen as they searched for potential sabotage and intelligence information while the U-boats were en route to Portsmouth. Scattered documents and clothing were perceived as fire and access hazards while the U-boats awaited inspection by shipyard engineers. Material scattered aboard the U-boats was stockpiled in the prison entrance lobby where it was looted by prison guards. Decorations and personal possessions taken from U-boat crewmen were retained as souvenirs rather than returned to prisoners of war as required by the Geneva Convention.[5]

Cold War[]

The brig was used throughout the Korean War and almost to the end of the Vietnam War. During warmer months, it was not uncommon for boats navigating the river to hear shouts and whistles coming from within barred windows of "the Fortress." In 1974 the Department of Defense developed a three-tiered, regional correctional facility plan. Inmates would be placed depending on the service, sentence length, geographical location, and treatment programs. First-tier offenders are those with sentences less than a year, second-tier up to 7 years. Male convicts from all the services sentenced to punitive discharge and incarceration longer than 7 years are confined at the third-tier — the maximum-security U. S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Portsmouth Naval Prison, built to be a modern correctional facility for a navy which had once disciplined by flogging and capital punishment, was rendered obsolete. After containing about 86,000 military inmates over its 66 year operation, the brig closed in 1974, its maintenance thereafter contributing to shipyard overhead.The Navy briefly used the prison in the early 1980s to train military corrections officers. Volunteer Inmates from the Rockingham County Jail were sometimes used.

In popular culture[]

In the 1973 movie The Last Detail, Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) is escorted by petty officers Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mule Mulhall (Otis Young) to the Portsmouth Naval Prison. Meadows has been sentenced to 8 years confinement for trying to steal $40 from a charity box. But because of his harsh sentence, the guards feel sorry for Meadows. They decide to show the naive sailor the time of his life before arriving on Seavey's Island (where another location substitutes for the actual brig).

In W.E.B. Griffin's novel "Semper Fi," Corporal Kenneth "Killer" McCoy is assigned to transport prisoners from San Diego, California to the Portsmouth Naval Prison.

The prison is referred to in Stephen King's 1982 novella The Body, later filmed as Stand by Me.


The building was previously one of 14 structures the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard had considered for outleasing and renovation. Local developer Joseph Sawtelle estimated the cost to renovate the immense edifice into civilian office space, including removing lead paint and asbestos, would cost more than $10 million. But plans to adapt the prison were halted a month after Sawtelle's death in 2000, and abandoned altogether after military base security was tightened following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York City and Washington D.C.[6] In 2008, it was considered as a home for the Air Force Cyber Command.


  • Blair, Clay Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunted 1942-1945 Random House (1998) ISBN 0-679-45742-9
  • Paterson, Lawrence Black Flag: The Surrender of Germany's U-Boat Forces MBI Publishing (2009) ISBN 0760337543


External links[]

Coordinates: 43°04′34″N 70°43′52″W / 43.0761°N 70.7311°W / 43.0761; -70.7311

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