Leavenworth's Federal Penitentiary Was Once Known As A 'University Of Radicalism'

Nov 17, 2015

There's a federal surveillance file from the early 20th century that refers to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas during World War I as a "University of Radicalism."

"That's not hyperbole," said researcher Christina Heatherton of Trinity College in Connecticut during a conversation on Central Standard

Heatherton was writing a book on the Mexican Revolution.

As she pored over correspondence among the organizers who instigated the revolution, letter after letter referred to radical heavyweights incarcerated in Leavenworth. With all roads leading back to Leavenworth, Heatherton finally came to Kansas to conduct in-depth archival research, to figure out what was going on within those prison walls.

"I started looking through the prisoner records," she said. "It was extraordinary to me that all these prisoners were in the same place at the same time."

We're talking communists, anarchists, foreign born radicals, black soldiers who had mutinied under the perceived threat of lynching, Mennonite pacifists and Mexican revolutionaries. 

"Not only were they there at the same time, they were talking to each other, they were organizing with each other, they had a night school, there were parades, there were newspapers," she said. "It was an extraordinary hubub of activity."

The reason? A handful of new pieces of federal legislation:  the Espionage Act, the Selective Service Act and the Sedition Act.

"All these things are very nebulous, abstract, broadly deployed against anyone who is showing disloyalty to the US government during World War I," says Heatherton. "Kansas becomes important because all these people from all these different walks of life ... they're all being ensnared by the same set of laws and they're all being sent to the same place."

One of the larger-than-life figures in the prison at the time was Ricardo Flores Magon, an influential thinker behind the Mexican Revolution. He worked in the prison library. He was apprehended in Los Angeles for co-writing The Manifesto to the Anarchists of the Entire World and to the Workers in General, which claimed that Mexico no longer belonged to the Mexican people, but to the American railroads, oil companies and sugar interests underwriting the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.

This was grounds for violation of Espionage Act.

Magon was a beloved figure, both inside and outside the prison. His teachings, within the penitentiary walls, influenced what radicals from around the world thought of the Mexican Revolution.

"The prisoners had actually organized a university inside the prison. You had people who were lecturers and academics on the outside, but you also had people who had been trained on street corners to organize and to think about the connection between history and theory. Magon was one of these."

So where were the authorities in all of this?

On the one hand, Heatherton sees signs of subtle encouragement. For example, a bunch of prisoners submitted an appeal to the warden to have a May Day celebration. They claimed that May Day was sacred to radicals. The request was honored, and prisoners turned their prison-issue jackets inside out so they were all wearing red jackets for the celebration. 

But that wasn't the whole story.

"You can't lose sight of the fact that this convergence space was a federal penitentiary," says Heatherton. "Obviously the warden didn't get out of the way and say, 'OK, do as you will with this space, educate and agitate with each other.' People were still being sent to solitary confinement. You have incredible stories of violence, of people being beaten, of mail being confiscated, and in Ricardo Flores Magon's case, of medicine being withheld." 

Some prisoners endured punishments of a political nature. Heatherton gives an example of two Mennonite men who were pacifists. They were sent to Leavenworth for refusing military conscription.

"They were meant to sleep on the cold ground without any blankets at night ... During the day, they wore manacles with their arms above their heads so their toes barely touched the ground and they were kept in these stress positions for hours until their arms would crack and bleed under the pressure. The final insult to injury is that their bodies were sent back to the South Dakota community they had come from with their corpses dressed in the military uniforms they'd refused to wear in life."

As she's researched this meeting place for radical thinkers a century ago, Heatherton has been struck by how today's political candidates struggle to articulate positions on economic and racial inequality.

In Leavenworth, she says, "people were forced to wrestle with these questions of the color line and the class struggle. How were people identifying the major antagonism in the country? Was it around an axis of class? Was it around an axis of race? Could it be both? At the beginning of the century, this was such a hot topic of debate. And yet, a century later, there's such fumbling around these questions."

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard, a daily talk show. You can reach her on Twitter @GinaKCUR