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The Women’s House of Detention

To walk by the verdant, lush garden behind the graceful Jefferson Market Library today, one can scarcely imagine that it was once the site of an eleven-story prison, the notorious Women’s House of Detention. Found on our Civil Rights and Social Justice map, this former imposing edifice served as a prison from its opening on March 29, 1932 until it was closed in 1971 (it was demolished in 1974). The structure was designed by the architecture firm of Sloan and Robertson, known for its Art Deco towers.

The Women’s House of Detention was preceded on the site by the Jefferson Market Prison. Both the Prison and the House of Detention housed many notable women whose radical, revolutionary, transgressive, ‘obscene,’ or just plain illegal behavior led to their incarceration there. While the Art Deco style Women’s House of Detention was originally built as a more modern, humane setting for prisoners than its predecessors, with a focus on rehabilitation and WPA-commissioned artworks to uplift its prisoners, it was eventually shut down following ongoing allegations of racial discrimination, abuse, and mistreatment of prisoners.

WPA artist Lucienne Bloch working on Women’s House of Detention mural. www.correctionhistory.org

In 1927, Mae West was jailed in the Jefferson Market Prison after being arrested on obscenity charges for her performance in her Broadway play Sex.

Mae West in the Broadway show, ‘Sex’ (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis)
Jefferson Market Prison in 1926, demolished in 1927. nyc-architecture.com

Prisoners at the Women’s House of Detention included Ethel Rosenberg, housed during her trial for espionage in the early 1950s for sharing atomic secrets along with her husband with the Soviet Union; Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, arrested and held there in 1957 for refusing to take part in a mandatory nuclear attack drill, which led to a vigil outside the prison by her comrades during her 30-day sentence; Feminist Andrea Dworkin, held there following her 1965 arrest in an anti-war protest; Valerie Solanas, the author of The S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto, held there following her shooting of Andy Warhol in 1968; and Black Panther Angela Davis, held there while awaiting extradition to California when she was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder for allegedly helping a 17-year old African-American high school student procure a firearm which he used to help three men escape from a California courtroom, during which a judge, the prosecutor, and three female jurors were taken hostage, and the judge was killed.

A later version of the 1967 manifesto by Solanas.

Both Dworkin and Davis wrote about their mistreatment and the abuse which they witnessed and experienced in the House of Detention, which aided in the calls for the overcrowded jail’s closure. Other noted feminist figures like Audre Lorde wrote about the boisterous scene emanating from and surrounding the jail, whose windows allowed the female prisoners to shout down to passersby, friends, family, lovers, pimps and drugs dealers. And in 1967 Sara Harris published her book, Hellhole: The Shocking Story of the Inmates and Life in the New York City House of Detention for Women which detailed the deplorable conditions as well as individual interviews of the inmates.

Hellhole. First printing in mass-market paperback.
New York: Tower Publications Inc., 1967.

The prison was officially closed in 1971 and the building was demolished in 1974.

To learn more about this site and over one hundred sites connected to civil rights and social justice history in the Village, East Village, and NoHo, check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map here.

15 responses to “The Women’s House of Detention

  1. Very important piece of NYC shameful history, never to be obliterated or forgotten.

    Although I passed by the Women’s House of Detention hundreds of times in the late 1950’s and 1960’s when I was a young, heedless Village denizen, I never knew its story, or of its political prisoners. Had I not just heard an interview, conducted by Amy Goodman at the massive 6/28/19 Pride demonstrations in NYC, of an old-time butch who was there during Stonewall, I would not have known to look this site up.

    Next to demolish: Rikers, please, G!d.
    You go, Tiffany Caban!!
    Thank you.

  2. TYPO CORRECTION: 6/30/19

    … massive 6/30/19 Pride demonstrations (marking the 6/28/69 50th Stonewall anniversary) …

  3. 1917 my grandmother, Maria Papio was in the House of Detention for her protection, she committed no crime but a witness committed a crime by Antonio Impulluzzo and she was there until the Court of Appeals. At the time she was there 3 months and was pregnant. I am trying to locate the records of her stay so I can complete my story for her grandchildren, great great grandchilden.

    1. I’m sorry to hear of your grandmother’s detention, but if she was held in 1917 she was in the old prison/jail, not the House of Detention for Women which was built in the 30s.

  4. The Robin Williams movie House of D brought back memories demonstrating outside prison in the 70s , watching strings of notes dropped down from cells and money cigarettes pulled up to the women.

  5. Billie Holiday was also sentenced to a term on Welfare Island for prostitution from the Jefferson Court House sometime around 1929 or 1930.

  6. My Aunt was in the Women’s house of detention. I don’t know the dates. Just trying to find out information

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