Blake F. McKelvey's 1972
A History of Penal and Correctional Institutions in the Rochester Area
The recent tragedy in nearby Attica has focused public attention on the need for reforms in our penal system. . . . Perhaps a review of past experience in this field in the Rochester area will prove enlightening. . . . In its capacity as the seat of Monroe County, [Rochester] has provided sites for four successive jails and a local penitentiary which has had some creative as well as some depressing aspects. Rochester was also the site for many decades of the Western House of Refuge, a state institution later renamed an Industrial School and moved to Industry some 15 miles south of the city.
As a part of New York State Rochester has had some responsibility for and has made many commitments to Auburn prison, as well as to the Reformatory at Elmira, the State Training School for Women at Albion, and the maximum security prison at Attica. . . .
[McKelvey pages 2 through 6]
Monroe County's first jail, like most jails elsewhere, was hastily built as a place of detention with little thought as to its character. Before the erection of Monroe County's second and more permanent jail in 1832, however, the State of New York had developed the structure and philosophy of the Auburn, system, and the Monroe jail incorporated at least its basic cell block.
As reformers in the state moved in later years to provide separate treatment for juveniles, for women and for minor offenders, responsible local residents promoted the establishment of such institutions in the Genesee area too. Rochester thus participated in both the accomplishments and the disillusionments of the early institutional penology. . . .
A group of citizens proposed the erection in 1824 of a "stepping mill" for the punishment of minor offenders as preferable to confinement in the gloomy jail, but the legislature failed to grant the necessary authority. Another group of citizens protested the incarceration of debtors for minor sums and raised a sufficient fund to cancel the debts of all those confined in 1831. After the escape of the first homicide suspect in 1822, the jailer erected a wooden stockade at the entrance to provide better security when the door was opened.
But six years later, when a fire broke out in the log house, compelling the jailer to unlock all doors, three inmates readily made their escape. To guard against a repetition of such breaks, the supervisors authorized the construction of a stone wall around the jail yard. A grand jury found the jail clean but overcrowded in January 1830 and recommended prompt action to replace it on a more adequate site.
The location chosen for the new jail had several advantages. Colonel Rochester and his partners were constructing a new and enlarged raceway from the western end of the newly rebuilt mill dam, and they offered the county the half-acre plot at the southern tip of the island formed between that channel and the river provided the county would build an embankment along its two sides as a safeguard against floods. The jailer accepted the task as a convenient work assignment for some of his inmates and, because of the isolation of the new site, employed others in completing the construction of the new jail opened in 1832.
The new jail was built entirely of stone at a total cost of $12,500. Following the design developed at Auburn, the jail proper, 60 feet long and 40 wide, enclosed two double tiers of cells, 4x8x7 feet in size and arranged back-to-back, with an open space two stories high separating the cells from the outer walls and windows. In addition to the 40 cells in the main block, the jail had a number of rooms on its third floor for the separate confinement of women and children and other special cases. When the number of female inmates began to increase in 1838, the supervisors appropriated funds for the construction of cells for them on the third floor of the jailer's house, which adjoined but had no direct access to the prison.
. . . . no effort was made to enforce the rule of silence, the key feature of the Auburn system. In fact Edwin Avery, who later became a miller, won commendation in 1837 from Henry O'Reilly in his Sketches of Rochester for success in "meliorting the condition of the prisoners by inducing them to labor voluntarily in various useful ways" including work assignments on a rock pile in the jail yard. But that fair report was darkened somewhat the next year when the confinement of William Lyon Mackenzie to the Monroe County Jail focused wide attention on its regulations and burdened the new jailer, Ephraim Gilbert, with his frequent complaints.
Mackenzie, a former mayor of Toronto who had led an abortive movement for Canadian independence, had been convicted of violating American neutrality laws by basing his insurrection in the States. Because of his earlier friendship with O'Reilly and others in Rochester, Mackenzie had settled his family there and had requested confinement in the Monroe County jail. But when the special treatment he expected and in part received was not entirely agreeable, his indignation and criticism of "the American bastille" knew no bounds. . . few were more gratified than jailer Gilbert when President Van Buren signed the long awaited pardon on May 5, 1840.
Mackenzie's numerous complaints, aired in his weekly Gazette, which his friends continued to publish in Rochester, alerted its citizens to conditions in the jail. O'Reilly not only permitted his friend to borrow books from the Athenaeum library, of which he was a director, but collected books and tracts in 1840 for a library in the jail.
The vigorous Canadian's passion for exercise finally prompted the sheriff to permit him to exercise in the jail yard when the work of other inmates on the stone pile was suspended, and this freedom called attention to the need for a wall around that yard to make it available for other inmate uses. That reform, though frequently proposed in subsequent years, was however deferred until an attempted break in 1846 and a successful escape the next year prompted the county to hasten the construction of a wall that fall.
The county jail attracted attention for several additional reasons. Although most of those entered there, who increased from around three hundred to around five hundred annually during its early decades, were released after short terms, or despatched to Auburn as convicted felons,
The most notorious in these early years were two convicted murderers hanged in the jail yard in July and November of 1838. Morbid citizens attracted by such spectacles waited until 1852 for a third execution, but the confinement of the circus manager Dan Rice in the jail over night for failure to pay a fine in 1850 prompted him to write a song about the "Blue Eagle," as he distinguished it from the Eagle Hotel at the Four Corners where he normally stopped while in Rochester. That ditty, sung on frequent occasions in Rochester, supplied an enduring name and won the Monroe County jail a secure place in Rochester's history.