In My Soul to Keep, Miranda Clarke lands in Redemption, a prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. Redemption bears a striking resemblance to the real federal penitentiary in Leavenworth. That’s right, I was inspired by a maximum security prison.
In 1871 the United States realized that the stockades and fort prisons were inadequate. Congress passed the “Three Prisons Act” in 1891. This law authorized the federal government’s first three penitentiaries: USP Leavenworth, USP Atlanta, and USP McNeil Island. It also led to the creation of the federal prison system and, in 1930, the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas is an imposing structure of white limestone. It sits twenty-five miles northwest of Kansas City, Kansas. Construction began in March 1897. The central dome of the facility led to its nicknames, the “Big Top” and the “Big House.” It was the first of the three penitentiaries to house prisoners.
The federal prison opened in 1903 to its first 418 prisoners. The first cell house wasn’t complete until 1904. Originally built to house 1,200 prisoners, the inmate population rose to 3,362. (Currently, the population is almost 1,800 inmates.) Initially a maximum security facility, it was downgraded to a medium security prison in 2005.
Inmates included cowboys and Indians, spies and gangsters, and assassins and sports personalities. Machine Gun Kelly, Frank Nitty, and George “Bugs” Moran were among the famous inmates. Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” had his aviary at Leavenworth (not at Alcatraz.) The violent sociopath who killed without remorse also famously nurtured two fledglings he found in the yard. That roused his passion for birds. He studied them and wrote two books about them. And he sold birds, healing potions for birds, and seed while in prison.
The number of famous prisoners is too long to list here. You can see a partial list on Wikipedia. The complete list is at the National Archives in Kansas City along with prisoner records and personal letters.
A History of Escapes
Leavenworth has a history of interesting escapes. The first mass escape occurred in1898. Only the leader of that group avoided capture—for five years. One escape included a hijacked train. The train brought construction materials in. They forced the engineer to drive through the gate. A group of escapees held the warden hostage and were allowed to walk out the front gate. That led to a new law. From then on the gate could not be opened regardless of who was a hostage. One prisoner dressed as a safety inspector and walked out the front door. Leavenworth is also known for another first, the first fatality of a federal prison officer in 1901.
I’ve known about Leavenworth ever since I moved into the Kansas City area. I learned its fascinating history after I began scouting for inspiration on location. With such a rich history a mere forty-five-minute drive from home, how could I resist?
For obvious reasons, the prison does not allow public tours. For more information, watch the documentary, The United States Penitentiary: Leavenworth. Or visit the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.
Of course, researching Leavenworth inspired the Redemption. But the details sprang completely from my imagination. I hope you’ve enjoyed inspired by a maximum security prison, part of my Inspiration on Location series of blog posts. If you missed my previous post on Lynchburg, Virginia you can read about it here. In less than four weeks you’ll be able to read about Miranda and Beryl’s adventures. I hope you’ll enjoy reading how they landed in and escaped from a Leavenworth-inspired prison.