Women's House of Detention

The building, twelve stories high, was built in 1932 as a monument to Modern Penology. The idea was to make it look not like a jail at all but like a new apartment building. There are copper facings with 1930's modern arch designs on them between the floors. In the place of bars there are windows with a heavy grillwork holding minute square panes. The panes are clouded, like cataracts. Actually, the effect is more like that of the power plant at Yale University, which was designed to resemble a Gothic cathedral, but, in any case, it does not look like a jail (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Tom Wolfe).1

The story of the Women’s House of Detention in 1973 can be seen as a metaphor for the transition of Greenwich Village's image from transgressive to gentrified. Since opening in 1932 it housed female prisoners in the heart of Greenwich Village- at the intersection of Greenwich Avenue, West Tenth Street, and Sixth Avenue- next to what is now the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library. It was built in response to criticisms that the prison facilities in the Jefferson Market Courthouse were overcrowded and in poor condition. Designed in Art Deco style by architectural firm Sloan & Robertson and incorporating "the latest in jailhouse technology," the prison stood on the same site as the previous facility.2 Other than its imposing height, the defining feature of the building, referenced in numerous newspaper articles and in writings by Tom Wolfe and Audre Lorde, was the spectacle created by the inmates’ friends and partners, male and female, outside the prison carrying on shouted conversations with the women inside.3 They may have been locked up, but they refused to be quiet; no one could forget they were there.

Village Square (as the area around the prison was known), boisterous on normal days, was often the site of protests. In 1957, Dorothy Day, founder of the radical Catholic Worker movement, was arrested and brought to the House of Detention for not taking shelter during a mandatory nuclear attack drill. In response, her comrades staged a vigil for the duration of her 30-day sentence.4 The Black Panther Party was well represented within the walls of the prison. Afeni Shakur and Joan Bird, arrested with other Black Panthers on conspiracy to blow up several New York buildings, were held at the detention center until they were acquitted in October 1970 after only two hours of jury deliberation. Their supporters also staged a constant vigil in 1969 that lasted from Christmas to New Year’s Day. On the day Joan Bird was to be released on bail, the New York Times reported that “the Women’s Liberation People stayed outside on the street, chanting ‘power to the people’.”5 Angela Davis, another Panther, was held at the House of Detention awaiting extradition to California and had her own contingent of supporters who congregated outside the jail. She was kept in the section reserved for the mentally unstable; supposedly it was for her own safety, but she theorized that it was to keep her from radicalizing the other inmates.6

Davis writes in her autobiography of the appalling conditions at the jail, but she was not the first to do so. The detention center was only meant to house 457 women, but was already overcrowded by 1938, only five years after it opened. One inmate called it a “snake-pit”; in addition to cockroaches and worms in the food, she witnessed “a girl in a nearby cell [screaming] continually for help…[who] was ignored by prison officials and was found dead the next morning of a burst appendix."7 Because it was such a visible and accessible symbol of the justice system’s failings, the prison became the continual target of reformist zeal, with politicians and prison reformers regularly calling for it to be shut down. After being arrested during a 1965 anti-war protest, noted feminist Andrea Dworkin publicized her painful and demeaning cavity search at the hands of prison guards, helping to expedite plans to shut down the detention center for good.8

Day, Shakur, Davis and Dworkin are representative of an important population of the prison. Over the years, the House of Detention held many other famous women who were seen as radicals or leaders of social movements- including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ethel Rosenberg and Valerie Solanas, to name a few- but, of course, most of the prisoners were not.9 While these radical figures and others who were in some sense “outsiders” (lesbians, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc) were imprisoned in the Village, there was still an aura of danger and otherness to the neighborhood, but also a sense that social change was possible. When the prison finally left, taking its troubling inhabitants with it, the West Village could continue unencumbered on the path to gentrification, its rowdy past a faint memory.

Of course, the beginning of the end started much earlier. During the 1960s, Greenwich Village began its transformation from countercultural hotspot to gentrified tourist attraction. City officials spent decades looking at ways to close the jail.10 Many residents felt that the House of Detention did not fit their concept of “the Village” and deplored the commotion caused by periodic riots and protests. Many of them may have wanted the building condemned for humanitarian reasons, but others were likely worried for their personal safety or property values. At community meetings, they frequently complained about the shouting, with one resident saying it was “hardly the conversation we want our children to hear.” The class differences between the incarcerated and the nearby homeowners were stark.11

While some residents applauded the decision to move the House of Detention to Rikers Island, others like Tuli Kupferberg, poet and member of the band The Fugs, wanted the jail to remain in the Village. As he put it in a letter to the Village Voice, it was “the only humanely located penal institution I know of…The girls and women inside feel they have not been disconnected from society.”12 People like Kupferberg were afraid that if the women were not in the middle of New York City making noise, it would be too easy to forget about the oppression, racism, and other hardships they faced. If the jail moved to Rikers, it would be harder for lawyers, volunteers, and visitors to get to them and the women would not have the comfort of hearing their loved ones shout from the street or the amusement of taunting passersby. They would be shunted off to a remote location where they could be ignored and forgotten about. There was a worry that if they were farther away from the outside world, there would be more opportunity for abuse. Once they moved to Rikers in 1971, some of the inmates reported liking the new, cleaner facilities, but others missed being in the midst of the Village scene.13

Even after it was finally closed, the prison continued to be a site of controversy right through its demolition. The debate merely shifted to discussions of what the city should do with the vacant building. Several plans were put forward over the years. Some wanted to convert the building into middle-income apartments or housing for the elderly. Others wanted to consolidate multiple city services into the building. The New School made plans to purchase the property for an urban research center, but later reneged on the deal. In the end, the property was retained by the city as a garden.14 The landmarked Victorian Gothic Jefferson Market Library building (built in 1877), which had been the site of many high-profile cases during its time as a court, once again became the neighborhood’s focal point when the out-of-scale jail was razed. A library and garden were much more in keeping with the values and environment of the newly gentrified Village than a women's prison.15

Useful Links:

This page has information about the Woman's House of Detention providing a historical overview which begins in the 1830s and ends in the 1970s. While it is not a detailed comprehensive essay, it does provide brief insights into the location at different times in history. The best part about this page are pictures from a mural painted at the prison as part of a Works Progress Administration project.

This page is an overview of the different uses the site where the Woman's House of Detention was used for over the years. While the page is primarily about the Jefferson Market Library, it does cover the Woman's House of Detention. This page has more details than the above site.

This site has three pages of extracts from a report on the conditions of the House of Detention by Correction Commissioner Anna M Kros. The extract of the report online covers the mid 1950s. Another reason to look at this page is that it contains photographs of the prisoners.

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