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Black History Month Notes:
'Firsts' and Facility Names

  • First DOC African-American Warden: James A. Thomas
  • Warden James C. Harrison
  • Warden Otis Bantum
  • Jail Barge Named for Warden Bain
  • Other DOC African-American 'Firsts'
    [James A. Thomas]
    First DOC African-American Warden:
    James A. Thomas.

    On April 28, 1989, the House of Detention for Men on Rikers Island was renamed the James A. Thomas Center in honor of the Departmentís first African-American warden. Thomas, who had joined DOC in 1946, was promoted to that rank in 1965.

    Born in Hawkinsville, Ga., August 2, 1914, the son of James and Georgia McGhee Thomas, he served in the Army during World War II as a tank corps sergeant. He saw combat in central Europe.

    After military service, Thomas entered civil service. His first Correction assignment was at the New York City Penitentiary, where 21 years later he would become warden and which 43 years later would bear his name.

    [James C. Harrison]
    Warden James C. Harrison.

    After serving as a C.O. at the Pen, Thomas saw duty at other DOC facilites as an officer and later captain. Meanwhile, the Pen was renamed the House of Detention for Men (HDM) after the maximum term of incarceration that could be served in the city system was set at one year. Previously the limit on a city sentence had been three years. He returned as a Deputy Warden and then served another 10 years there after being promoted to warden.

    Thomas had a reputation as "guff and tough," a taskmaster as an administer who also remained a warm human being.

    Three years after Thomas became warden at HDM, James C. Harrison was named warden at the Brooklyn House of Detention for Men. Both were provisional appointments. Both titles were made permanent with formal swearing-in ceremonies April 29, 1969. Thomas is credited with the honor of being DOCís first African-American warden because his provisional appointment preceded Harrisonís by three years, although both were sworn into their permanent titles the same day. Regardless to whom the honor of being the Department's first African-American warden may be assigned, both were criminal justice pioneers.

    Go to Black History Notes List

    [Otis Bantum]
    Warden Otis Bantum.

    About two months after participating in the JATC dedication ceremonies and in the first Penitentiary Reunion held afterwards for former Pen/HDM personnel, Otis E. Bantum died of a heart attack while on a fishing vacation in British Columbia.

    At the time of his death he was warden of North Facility, subsequently named in his memory. Bantum, born in Salem, N. J., in 1939, began his 22-year DOC career in 1967 as a C.O. at HDM. Five years later he was assigned as a captain at the Correctional Institute for Men. A year after that, he went to the Bronx House as an Assistant Deputy Warden. In 1979, he was promoted to deputy warden and later served at central office as deputy chief of operations. Fourteen years after first being assigned there as an officer, Bantum returned as warden. In 1984, he was assigned to the Adolescent Reception and Detention Center and two year later to North Facility. Besides family and Correction, his passions were ballroom dancing and fishing.

    He was quoted as once saying, "I want to go out with a rod in my hand, a fish on my line and a smile on my face."

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    Jail Barge Named for Warden Bain

    A third DOC facility is named for a deceased warden of African-American heritage: the Vernon C. Bain Center. DOCís 800-bed jail barge moored at Hunts Point directly across from Rikers, it was formerly known as the Maritime Facility III. Warden Bain, 46, was commander of the Correctional Institution for Men on Rikers Island at the time of his death in a 1985 Bronx traffic accident. He had joined the Department in 1963 and rose through the ranks to warden in 1981.

    Other DOC African-American 'Firsts'

    Among other DOC African-American "firsts" are the commissionerships of Benjamin Malcolm (1972-77), a civilian, and Jacqueline McMickens (1984-86), who came up through the ranks. Similarly to be counted as firsts are the chief-of-department appointment of McMickens (1979-84) and Gerald Brown (1978-79), and the warden appointment of Gloria Lee (1978-81).

    Go to Black History Notes List

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