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Prisoner Accommodation throughout the times

Prisoner Accommodation

POW Accommodation throughout the different periods of war

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Detaining powers face many challenges when handling prisoners of war and civilian internees, not the least of which is the need to provide accommodation or living quarters for captives. In some conflicts, belligerents are able to make advance preparations, but more often, arrangements must be made much more hastily. As a result, prisoners have usually been housed in structures that have been hurriedly converted to prisons rather than in camps specially designed for internment.

For centuries, belligerent nations have agreed on a number of practices for the release of prisoners, all of which have been intended, in part, to solve the problem of having to provide accommodation. Until the twentieth century, there was widespread use of parole, whereby, upon giving a pledge not to fight again, prisoners would be released, either to their home country or to arrange their own lodging in the enemy state.

Many prisoner exchanges, often on the basis of numerical equality, also allowed prisoners to return to their homes. At the other end of the spectrum, it was not uncommon for prisoners to be massacred. This, like exchange and parole, was a way to relieve a belligerent state of the burden of housing prisoners.

However, if exchange or parole could not be agreed upon and if execution offended the sensibilities of the state, it had no choice but to provide accommodation for prisoners. In the worst-case scenario, when an enemy collapsed suddenly or an offensive was more successful than predicted, a belligerent government would suddenly be faced with masses of prisoners to house. This was the case at certain points during the U.S. Civil War, during the German spring offensive in the summer of 1918, after the fall of France in 1940, and after the fall of Germany in 1945. In each instance, prisoners bore the brunt of the lack of preparations. They endured long and exhausting treks, only to discover there were no buildings to shelter them.

When the first Union prisoners reached Andersonville, Georgia, in February 1864, there were no barracks; POWs slept in the open air, dug holes in the ground, or cobbled together rude shelters from scraps of lumber they found. The situation was the same for the hundreds of thousands of German soldiers who surrendered when the Nazi state collapsed in 1945; there were simply not enough buildings available to house them, so many spent weeks living in open fields without shelter.

Prisoners of the Japanese in World War II, sent to Thailand to work on the Death Railway, found that they had to build their own camps. Their captors provided the tools, but they had to clear the jungle and erect the barracks themselves.

Wherever possible, detaining powers have adapted other structures to serve as prisons. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this practice: Provided there is sufficient time to complete the arrangements, a converted camp can be quite adequate. Indeed, millions of prisoners have been incarcerated in camps that had once been something else. Perhaps the most common practice has been to convert a military establishment into a prison camp.

During World War I, the German government did this at a former cavalry school at Bischofswerda and at a former training school for noncommissioned officers at Friedberg. Disused industrial buildings were also used frequently, although they were not particularly well suited to the task. They were large and could easily accommodate many prisoners, but considerable effort was generally required to make them habitable, and the detaining power was often not willing to expend that effort.

In the U.S. Civil War, the prison at Cahaba, Alabama, had once been a cotton warehouse. British POWs confined in Halle in World War I were dismayed to discover that their camp had once been an iron foundry; there were no proper sanitary facilities, and the room that served as a mess hall had a dirt floor.

Castles have also been natural choices: Portchester Castle in England held French POWs during the Napoleonic Wars, and during World War II, the German military made prison camps out of many castles, including Colditz, Königstein, Spangenberg, and Laufen.

But there were also many strange conversions. In World War I, the British government converted London's Alexandra Palace, a huge, glass-roofed exhibition hall, into a prison for 5,000 civilian internees. Oflag 21B at Szubin in eastern Germany was a former girls' school that held Allied POWs during World War II. Cu Loc prison in southwest Hanoi (known to its American inmates as "the Zoo") had been a film studio before it was converted to hold American POWs captured in the Vietnam War.

Conditions in POW camps have obviously varied, but this variation is largely related to issues unconnected with the nature of the camps themselves; virtually any converted structure can be made comfortable, provided that the detaining power is inclined to do so. The only type of prison camp that is by its nature less than inhabitable is, oddly enough, the converted military fortress. British prisoners captured during the Napoleonic Wars lived in a number of French fortifications, like Verdun citadel and the citadel of Bitche, Valenciennes, Arras, Besancon, and Auxonne. Fortresses in eastern Germany, like Thorn (Toruń), Zinna, Posen (Poznań), and Graudenz (Grudziądz), held Allied prisoners during both world wars. In such places, cold, damp, and dank conditions were undeniably inimical to prisoners' health.

Less significant numerically but equally important in historical terms were camps built specifically as prisons. These have a longer lineage than might be imagined and as a consequence it is not unknown for prison camps to be used in more than one war. Mill Prison in Devon, in southern England, had first served as a POW camp during the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697). Later, permanent buildings were erected there to house prisoners during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), and those same buildings housed American prisoners during the American Revolution. Lamsdorf, in eastern Germany, served as a prison camp in both World War I and II, and conditions were equally bad in both wars. One unlucky British prisoner even had the misfortune to be imprisoned in Lamsdorf in both wars.

However, most camps built as prisons were never intended to be permanent. Dozens of camps in Nazi Germany, for example, were built according to a standard plan and consisted of the same basic elements: long wooden barracks divided into small sleeping and common rooms; high barbed-wire fences, often with a low warning wire running around the inside of the fence to create a danger zone close to the wire; guard towers around the perimeter; a lavatory block; common buildings to be used for recreation or study; and adjacent compounds for the punishment block and the camp staff offices.

Camps of roughly the same design were constructed in Britain, Canada, the United States, and Australia, so that it is almost possible to speak of a common style of prison-camp architecture for this period. Most of these camps were dismantled soon after the war, although some have been retained (either whole or in part) as museums.

International law has gradually been improved to ensure that POWs are housed in the most favorable conditions possible. The 1907 Hague Convention allowed that prisoners "may be interned in a town, fortress, camp, or other place" (Article 5), but it did not specify that these places of internment should be healthy or safe. The 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was a considerable improvement. It stipulated that prisoners should be lodged "in buildings or in barracks affording all possible guarantees of hygiene or healthfulness" and that the quarters should be dry, heated, lighted, and protected against fire.

The dormitories themselves, with respect to the bedding, floor space, and area, should be comparable to the dormitories of the detaining power's own troops (Article 10). The 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War went even further to allow for cultural differences, requiring that detaining powers should make allowances for the habits and customs of prisoners; should the accommodation provided for their own troops be insufficient to maintain the health of their POWs, they were bound to improve the standards for prisoners (Article 25).

Country:
Multiple Countries
Period/s:
All Wars
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