KITTERY, Maine — Walt Disney never served a prison sentence at the Portsmouth Naval Prison, even though local legend has it that the castle-like quality of the building served as his inspiration for the Magic Kingdom.
Actor Humphrey Bogart, however, probably does have ties to the prison. He apparently was on his way there with a prisoner, who at one point smashed him in the mouth and tried to escape. It’s unknown whether Bogie actually made it to Kittery.
And as far as he knows, no ghost stories arise from within the prison walls, although many a paranormal group (politely, but firmly, turned down) have asked for access, said Portsmouth Naval Shipyard public affairs officer Gary Hildreth.
Hildreth shared these and other stories of prison history and lore Monday during a tour of the prison grounds, as the Navy readies to turn the behemoth building at the mouth of the Piscataqua River over to private hands.
The Navy is currently gathering requests for qualifications from private- and public-sector developers. It announced in March that it was interested in leasing the 265,000-square-foot building for up to 50 years.
Hildreth said that over the years, he has taken hundreds of groups on tours of the shipyard, and hands down the No. 1 attraction is the prison.
“That’s the question we’re always asked: ‘Can we see the prison?'” he said. And for good reason. With a stunning open view to the Atlantic Ocean, the prison can be seen from Portsmouth and New Castle, N.H., and by hundreds of boaters and visitors aboard the M/V Thomas Laighton in the summer.
The Portsmouth Naval Prison was closed in 1974, but not before it incarcerated 83,607 sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen over the course of its 126-year history.
The reasons the shipyard was chosen by the Navy are obvious, he said. “It was on an island, and it was surrounded by treacherous waters. It made a lot of sense,” he said.
The central facility built in 1908, Hildreth said, contained 302 cells, each 6 feet by 11 feet. Initially, two men were housed inside each cell. But as the prison became more and more crowded, an extra bunk was added in each cell.
The building looks like a castle, but it was intended to look imposing, not fairy tale-like.
“It was designed with the ‘Fortress school’ of prison architecture in mind, popular in the 19th century,” Hildreth said. “Its appearance emphasized the ‘security and punitive nature’ of imprisonment and it was designed to emanate ‘misery behind its walls.'”
As the country entered World War II, the northeast wing and the southwest wing were added in 1942 and 1943, respectively, he said.
“It was the war, and not everyone behaved in the war,” he said. He told a story about a reunion of prison guards in 2008, on the 100th anniversary. He saw a man smoking a cigarette and coughing. When Hildreth approached him, he said he was not a guard but an inmate at the prison.
“He said he was on guard duty one night and snuck away to have a smoke. He was caught, and he came here for eight months,” he said.
Between September and December 1943, the prison population skyrocketed from 601 to 1,998. At its peak, 3,088 prisoners were interred there.
It was also a model of prison reform, Hildreth said.
“It was one of the first prisons in the country that realized prisoners had to be rehabilitated. They taught them skills like woodworking and bookbinding. There was a tailor shop, a cobbler. They wanted the prisoners to have skills when they got out,” he said.
After the war, however, the prison population dwindled, and by 1973, the Navy determined the prison was no longer cost-effective and began decommissioning it.
The prison has been sitting empty since 1974. The leasing business will have significant work to do to get it in shape. The building has asbestos and lead paint, at the very least, and all cost of removal must be borne by the lessee.
Because it’s eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the prison can’t be torn down, either, and any renovations have to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act.
The Navy is accepting requests for qualifications through July 31 and will then take several months to review the proposals, said Tom Kreidel, public information officer for Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Mid-Atlantic, which is overseeing the process.
This will not be the first time the Navy has tried to find a tenant. Attempts in the late 1990s and in 2008 were unsuccessful.