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A Troubling Look Inside of the Women’s House of Detention

This is one of a series of blog posts which highlights the fascinating contents in our Village Independent Democrats collection, added to our Preservation History Archive in early 2024.

The Women’s House of Detention opened on the site of the Jefferson Market Courthouse, located between Sixth and Greenwich Avenues, on March 29th, 1932. When originally planned and constructed, the Women’s House of Detention was meant to be a more humane facility than the Jefferson Market Prison, which preceded it on the site from 1877 until 1927. The Jefferson Market Prison had been built concurrently with the adjacent, and still extant, Jefferson Market Courthouse. The Women’s House of Detention stood twelve stories tall, and is likely the only Art-Deco prison ever built.

Photo of Women’s House of detention in 1973. Photo taken by Fred W. McDarrah, and featured in our Historic Image Archive collection, Fred W. McDarrah: Iconic Images of the Village & East Village, Part 2.

When first constructed, the new prison received praise for having fairly large rooms rather than cells, each of which had a street facing window without bars. There was a focus on rehabilitation, with sewing classes, a library, and rooftop recreation area where inmates could participate in different sports and other athletic activities. The prison also featured WPA commissioned artwork as a way to lighten the environment. However, by the end of the 1930s, reports of overcrowding inside of the prison began to arise.

The troubling conditions inside of the Women’s House of Detention continued, and by many reports worsened, over the decades. In addition to overcrowding, inmates were reportedly underfed. In April of 1958, an inmate inside of the House of Detention was brutally beaten after protesting the lack of food they were being given. As a way to protest this poor treatment, inmates began shouting and throwing items outside of their windows. It was reported that nearly 1,000 Greenwich Village residents watched this protest.

Front page of pamphlet advertisement for Women’s House of Detention. View entire Pamphlet here.

Many Village residents were offended by the treatment of the people inside of the Women’s House of Detention, its impact upon the surrounding community, or both. The prison’s design, and prime location on Greenwich and Sixth Avenues, meant that people walking by could hear those inside of the prison shouting, and even slightly see the prisoners through the opaque windows. One group that was particularly disturbed by these problems was the Village Independent Democrats (VID), a local reform democratic club that was founded in 1956. In order to fight the poor conditions inside of the Women’s House of Detention, the VID sponsored a conference that featured several panel discussions which highlighted the poor conditions.

The pamphlet for this conference is featured in our Village Independent Democrats Collection, which features the club’s archives from 1955 to 1969. The pamphlet highlighted the problems with the House of Detention, the organizations involved in the conference, and an overview of the panels, and panelists that would be at the conference. The problems with the prison, as described in the pamphlet, are below:

The pamphlet further notes that the Women’s House of Detention would soon be closed, as a new institution, located on Riker’s Island, would eventually open. However, with the completion of this facility several years away, the VID aimed to educate the community on issues faced by inmates, and possibly find an interim solution to the problem. The conference featured several topical panels, with experts who spoke about the terrible conditions inside of the jail.

List of panels and panelists at the Women’s House of Detention conference.

Some notable participants in these panels include Jane Jacobs, the community activist and organizer, who famously authored the book, “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and played a key role in fighting Robert Moses’ plans for an expressway through Washington Square Park. Another conference participant was Dorothy Day, who spoke about her experiences as a former inmate at the Women’s House of Detention. Day had founded the Catholic Worker, and was held in the Women’s House of Detention in 1957 after refusing to participate in a nuclear drill. Day was one of several notable radicals and revolutionaries who spent time inside of the Women’s House of Detention.

The Women’s House of Detention shut its doors on June 13, 1971. Demolition of the building began in 1973 and was completed by the following year. The empty space left behind by the demolition was turned into a garden to accompany the library that had opened in the adjacent Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1967.

The Garden Adjacent to the Jefferson Market Library today.

Much of this information comes from the latest addition to our Preservation History Archive, the Village Independent Democrats Collection: 1955-1969. Check out this collection to learn more about the group, and the important contributions they made to Greenwich Village and all of New York City. See all images of the Women’s House of Detention in our historic image archive here, and more information about the Women’s House of Detention, including past lectures and blog posts, here.

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