While not penitentiaries, the first NY institutions for mass incarcerations were 25 British prison ships in the Hudson and East Rivers during the American Revolution.
In connection with a presentation in mid-January, 2001 at a meeting of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, the New York Correction History Society general-secretary (who is also a member of the RIHS advisory committee) prepared the following text on the origins of the penitentiaries in New York City. Roosevelt Island is the current name for Blackwell's Island, the home of the New York City Penitentiary for more than a century. Images have been inserted into this web version to enhance the original plain text.
The tale of Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary begins in 1796, not on the East River isle itself, but on the Hudson River’s east bank on Manhattan Island’s western shoreline, in Greenwich Village, a mile and a half north of City Hall. That is where and when construction of the state’s first penitentiary started.
In those days there was no landfill-created highway cutting off access to the river, so this first penitentiary had its own wharf. The entire complex -- four acres at the head of what is now 10th Street, then called Amos -- was enclosed with a stonewall ranging from 14 to 23 feet high.
The next year the first 70 convicts sentenced to terms of more than three years were transferred there from the Bridewell at City Hall. The Bridewell, begun as a kind of workhouse, had evolved into a jail and prison as well.
Officially designated the State Prison, the Greenwich Village institution soon became known as Newgate, the name for Great Britain’s ancient citadel of incarceration, if not Correction. But the correctional purpose was precisely how New York City’s Newgate differed in original concept from London’s.
Our Newgate was established as a result of efforts by such social reformers as Thomas Eddy to make the criminal justice system of their day more humane. They reduced significantly the number of crimes requiring capital punishment upon conviction.
New York's Newgate
Instead of death sentences or crippling corporal punishment, they substituted lengthy prison sentences. That meant building facilities to house the felons who, under prior laws, would have been executed or maimed.
The various reforms had as their underpinning the idea that each human person possesses a capacity for personal redemption or self-salvation. Many of the reformers were, like Eddy, members of the Society of Friends aka Quakers. They believed the “inner light” in each individual could, if looked for and nurtured, lead that person along the right path.
Other reformers were leading members of establishment Christian churches. They found ample scriptural basis to believe in the human potential for redemption.
The convict aka sinner needed to recognize the wrongness of his ways, take responsibility for his wrong conduct, do penance for it, and resolve to sin no more. In sum, the convict/sinner must become penitent to be saved. Thus, the place set aside for such potential and perhaps actual penitents came to be called a Penitentiary.
As noble as that concept was, and still is, the particular prison built and managed at Eddy’s direction soon revealed serious flaws.
Many flowed from the fact he had designed most cells large enough to sleep eight inmates. The arrangement triggered all sort of problems involving inmate discipline and violence.
After only 27 years of operation, the Greenwich Village Newgate was deemed irredeemable itself as a state prison. The state legislature in 1824 ordered built as its replacement what became known as Sing Sing. The legislature also authorized selling Newgate.
New York City purchased Newgate in the spring of 1828 to house its own inmates, including those from its own Penitentiary built at Bellevue near 26th St. at the East River only a few years earlier. But the city’s Common Council changed course in July of 1828. Instead, the city purchased Blackwell’s Island for that purpose.
The island was purchased for the sum of $30,000. A further outlay of $20,000 was made in 1843 to perfect the title.
Big Bellevue Complex
The Bellevue Penitentiary had evolved from construction begun in 1811 of Almshouse facilities. But three years later, the plans were enlarged to include a penitentiary with “a complete system of manufactories.” To facilitate the city undertaking such an arrangement with regard to placement of its inmates, the state legislature on April 15, 1814, at the Common Council’s request earlier that year, directed the Council to designate one of the Bellevue buildings as “The Penitentiary of the City of New York.”
The language of the Act drew the first distinction for the city’s correctional institutions between a facility used solely for long-term sentenced inmates (the Penitentiary) and facilities used for detaining inmates awaiting trial and for short-term sentenced inmates (the jails although sometimes they were still called City Prisons).
By an Act in 1816, the Almshouse and Bridewell Commissioners were formally given control over the Bellevue Penitentiary as well (although they had exercised it de facto). About 10 years later the hospital we now identify with the name Bellevue was built and the entire complex enclosed with a stonewall.
To a significant extent, the Bellevue Penitentiary had been used to house females, state as well as city inmates. For the most part, its cells were really just large rooms holding a dozen or so prisoners. So many would be packed into the rooms that sometimes there was hardly enough floor space for the inmates to sleep.
The Bellevue Pen had the only known treadmill in the state for grinding grain. Both men and women inmates were forced to the tread the mill, the women reportedly doing somewhat better at it than the male inmates, a dubious honor.
Removal of the Penitentiary population to Blackwell’s Island had decided advantages. It got them away from booming and bustling Manhattan Island, where their visible presence was not consider desirable from a business point of view. Yet they would be close enough for access via steamboat to attend their needs.
Even Bigger Blackwell's Complex
Almost as soon as Blackwell’s Island was purchased, several hundred male prisoners from Bellevue were transferred there to start building their new home. They graded the island to slope towards its shores along which they built a seawall. The prison’s cornerstone was laid Sept. 10, 1828.
The Penitentiary they built was a fortress-like structure four stories in height, featuring a central administration building, 65 by 74 feet, and two wings, each 200 by 50 feet with 250 individual prisoner cells, the first ever as standard inmate housing in the city prison system.
In 1832, the main building of the Blackwell's Penitentiary was erected.
The Penitentiary stood 600 feet long with a projecting wing on the north side. The main building was constructed with gray stone taken from island quarries. It rose four stories high in a castle-like design and had 800 cells in four tiers back-to-back in the center of the structure.
Extending north and south, or parallel with the course of the island and river, the Penitentiary was the first public institution erected on the island. It was described as “a gloomy and massive edifice, constructed of hewn stone and rubble masonry.”
All able-bodied prisoners were required to labor. Some men were engaged in excavating stone from the rich quarries with which the island abounded, but which were exhausted after a few decades. The erection of new institutions on Blackwell’s as well as on Randall's, Ward's, and Hart Islands furnished constant employment to the convicts. Others able to work at non-constructiontrades were allowed to do so in the workshops of the Penitentiary. The women were required to do sewing, housework, and the like.
Super-agency: Public Charities and Correction
The acquisition of Blackwell’s led to placing control over virtually all the city’s charitable and correctional institutions under the Almshouse Commissioners. On April 23, 1832, the Almshouse Department was created organizing the then patch-quilt arrangements into a unified single agency. In succeeding years the governing structure of the agency would undergo changes and the number of its institutions would increase, but the general mandate would remain the same.
In fact, one of the several structural changes – this one Chapter 510 of the Laws of 1860 – resulted in a new name for the agency that better described its mission: the Department of Public Charities and Correction.
Thus, the acquisition of Blackwell’s Island for the purpose of building there a replacement to the Bellevue Penitentiary, instead of taking over old Newgate, put the Almshouse agency on a course that led it to become perhaps the city’s first super-agency.
In 1848 the Bellevue complex was divided, one reason being the intent to move all its inmates to Blackwell's. A decade later, the north wing was added to Blackwell's Penitentiary.
The Blackwell's Workhouse was built in 1852 to replace a century-old similar facility at Bellevue. Containing 221 cells arranged in tiers along the three-story walls of granite, the building functioned as an institution for punishment of petty violators, many of whom were classified as habitual "drunks and disorderlies," including several who virtually became permanent residents even though the usual stays were counted in days.
Most workhouse inmates were assigned work either in the workhouse shops or at other island institutions. The facilities the city constructed on Blackwell's – the Charity Hospital, Penitentiary, Almshouse, Hospital for Incurables, Workhouse, Asylum for the Insane, among others – were built of granite in the fortress style from feudal times.
All were erected with convict labor as was the seawall around the island. About the time DOC became a separate agency, Blackwell's housed a population of approximately 7,000 -- inmates and patients. Visitors needed agency permits to come across by the ferry that made the round trip from East 26th St. twice daily. Department steamboats transported inmates between the Tombs and Blackwell's Island.
Emergence of DOC
On Wednesday, June 5th, 1895, in Albany, then-Governor Levi Morton signed into law Chapter 912 (of the statutes enacted at the 118th Session of the New York State Legislature). Chapter 912's preamble described the law as:
Chapter 912 gave the public charities department
The chapter gave the Correction Department commissioner
The law authorized the Correction Commissioner to arrange to provide inmate labor, under the "oversight and direction of keepers, for the service needs of the Charities Department institutions' "grounds and buildings" but not "in any ward of any hospital." The law also authorized a six-month preparation period before the separation's effective date: January 1, 1896. It required the City to devise a plan for dividing properties and personnel of the combined department between the two emerging departments:
Among assignments to the Public Charities Department were
40 Years Before Pen Moved to Rikers
Further sections of the chapter provided for the eventual realignment of island properties so that Blackwell's island would become, in effect, more within Charities Department jurisdiction while Rikers and Hart Islands would become more within Correction Department jurisdiction.
Mayor William L. Strong, who came to power as a Fusion candidate fielded in 1894 by reformers, fathered the emergence of Correction as a separate City agency. A businessman nominally Republican, he ran with corruption fighter Democrat John W. Goff and named a former U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, to steady the then scandal-rocked Police Department.
In his first annual message to the Common Council, submitted January 8th, 1895, shortly after taking office, Mayor Strong declared
In his annual message, January 1896, he noted:
Scandals in the early 1900s, involving charges of inmate overcrowding, drug-dealing, and favoritism, prompted surface "reforms," including a change made by Aldermen on April 12, 1921, to a more pleasant-sounding name: Welfare Island.
Even so, the Penitentiary remained in place despite the fact that the language of the law creating DOC clearly had sought eventual removal of DOC inmates from Blackwell's to Rikers and Hart Islands. That transfer didn't happen in earnest until scandals in the 1930s led to real reform during the administration of another Fusion-elected mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia.
On January 12, 1934, LaGuardia's reform Correction Commissioner, Austin H. MacCormick, led a raid on the Welfare Island penitentiary to expose conditions. This brought about the removal of all inmates to Rikers Island, where new facilities were just being completed. Blackwell’s Penitentiary was demolished in 1936. Welfare Island was turned over exclusively to the care of the aged and the ill, although DOC still has a toe-hold on the island in the form of a terminal care unit of six beds for inmate/patients in Goldwater Memorial Hospital.