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What is Leavenworth?

By Nicole Kinsman
Updated: May 17, 2024

Leavenworth is a medium-security United States federal prison that is located in Leavenworth, Kansas. The facility — the official name is United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth — has garnered notoriety through television and movies since it opened in the early 1900s. Hollywood has chosen to portray this particular prison frequently because of its unique design as well as the interesting cast of criminals that the prison has hosted.

Throughout the 1800s, prisoners in the U.S. were housed in state prisons. The need for more facilities, however, convinced members of the U.S. Congress to allow for the country's first federal prisons to be built. The first federal prison system consisted of three facilities, which were located in Atlanta, Georgia; on McNeil Island in Washington state; and in Leavenworth. The federal prison system was committed to housing criminals who had been handed down sentences by the federal court system.

Construction on the penitentiary in Leavenworth was completed in 1903, and it became a maximum security prison. Inmates were kept in the main building of the facility. This dome-topped building is commonly referred to as the “Big Top” or the "Big House.” As of 2010, more than 1,600 inmates were housed in the main building.

Inside the main building is a large, rectangle shaped room with walls that are 30 feet (9.1 m) in height and approximately 3,000 feet (914 m) long. This room is where cells were constructed on each side of a large walkway that is patrolled by armed guards.

Over the years, Leavenworth has hosted some of the most notorious and dangerous criminals in the federal prison system. One such inmate was Robert Stroud, who became famously known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” He spent 30 years at Leavenworth, during which time he was allowed to breed and sell canaries. Other famous inmates who have been housed in the facility are George “Machine Gun” Kelly, a notorious gangster during the depression era; Michael Vick, a professional football quarterback; and Carl Panzram, a prolific serial killer who was executed by hanging in 1930.

Until 2005, Leavenworth penitentiary was the largest maximum security prison in the U.S. That year, the prison was changed to a medium-level security prison because the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons wanted to change the mission of the facility. The bureau did allow Leavenworth to keep its status as a United States Penitentiary for historical reasons.

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