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. The latest addition to the GVSHP Civil Rights and Social Justice map, this former imposing edifice served as a prison from 1932-1971 (demolished in 1974) and was designed by the architecture firm of Sloan and Robertson, a firm 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.