NYC District Prison System
[A district prison's ground floor cells]
A district prison's
ground floor cells.
NYC's District Prisons: 1800s - 1949
[NYCHS Shield]
[A district prison's upper tier cells]
A district prison's
upper tier cells.

In cooperation with NYC DOC, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the Office of Court Administration and the Harmlem Community Justice Center, the NY Correction History Society conducted a tour of the landmark Harlem Courthouse and its 5th District Prison in the fall of 2000 for Manhattan Borough Historian "Cal" Jones and his community historians. The NYCHS general secretary prepared the following briefing paper for the tour group to explain the role of the district courts and jails in the city's history:

New York City, that became five boroughs with the 1898 Consolidation, was once organized along district lines for various purposes. Today's community planning districts are distant cousins descended from the much more pervasive regionized governing arrangements of earlier eras.
[Looking at rescued records]
During a fall NYCHS tour of landmark Harlem court and jail, Manhattan borough historian "Cal" Jones (top left) and community historians, look over a few early 1900s records salvaged from a forgotten storage attic by David Bedrin (right) of the Harlem Community Justice Center. NYCHS is working with the center and the Municipal Archives to rescue remaining records from the pigeon-roost attic. [A NYCHS photo]
The so-called District Prison system was a feature of the city scene for most of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century.

Generally, these "prisons" actually were jails attached to or near district courts (variously called Police or Magistrates Courts). The jails typically consisted of little more than temporary holding cells for inmates in the early stages of the criminal justice system’s intake process.

Two decades before the Civil War, the Almshouse Department -- one of the Correction Department’s predecessor agencies -- counted among its facilities of a correctional character at least two prisons besides the Tombs: the Jefferson Market Prison, 10th St. and 6th Ave., Greenwich Village, and the Essex Market Prison, 1st & 2nd Sts. and 2nd Ave. They later became known, respectively, as the Second and Third District Prisons.

[A district prison's dimly-lit tier]
A district prison's
dimly-lit tier walkway.

The Tombs was designated the First District Prison, but that was simply a nominal reference for system schematic consistency.

A suggestion was made in official quarters in the early part of 20th Century that these market prisons had originated as the jails of villages that became part of the city as it grew. Be that as it may, the beginning of what eventually became the district prison network traces at least as far back as the late 1830s.

In 1860, the Almshouse Department was replaced by the Department of Public Charities and Correction (DOPCC). Among the projects it undertook was expansion of the district prisons. It added the Fourth District Prison (Yorkville) in 1863 and the Seventh District Prison (West Side) in 1865.

[Looking at rescued records]
Manhattan’s official Borough Historian “Cal” Jones and some of his community historians check cells during the fall NYCHS tour of landmark Harlem court and its 5th District jail. [A NYCHS photo]

The Yorkville Prison, or 57th St. Jail as it was sometimes called, had capacity for 40 detainees in the courthouse basement at 57th St. between 3rd and Lexington Ave. The judicial structure also housed the Fourth District Court and Family Court.

The West Side Prison, at 317 W. 53rd St., was one of the larger of these institutions, containing 38 cells and a large holding "cage." Male inmates stayed overnight, some remaining months and years. Women inmates didn’t remain overnight. The fortress-like structure featured back-to-back cells, each a small stone cavern with no shelving and hardly enough space for a single inmate. But its 38 cells sometimes held 157. The night court on 54th Street was just in back of the prison.

In 1875, the Sixth District Prison (first called Fordham) was added and, 10 years after that, the Fifth District Prison (Harlem) was added.

[Doorway to court stairs]
A district prison's
doorway to court stairs.

Even as the Fordham prison was being created, the old Jefferson Market Prison was being razed and then replaced by a seven-story brick building to house a courthouse and detention facilities for 138 inmates, in part to relieve overcrowding at the Tombs. Dormitories and 28 cells provided capacity for 78 male inmates. Sixty cells were designated for female inmates. About a half century later the seven-story building was replaced by a 10-story structure. While the Women’s House of Detention was building erected on the site of the Jefferson Market Prison in 1929-32, the Harlem Prison served as housing for female inmates.

The 5th District Prison is not being restored but is in extraordinarily good condition for a facility left unattended for more than a half century, features four tiers, each with 10 back-to-back cells, for a total of 40 cells, once capable holding 80 inmates when double-bunked. The tier walks, the cells, the bunk frames, the arched cell entrances, the individual cell doors -- all are there, worn but intact.

[records awaiting rescue]
In their long-forgotten pigeon-roost attic, rare early 1900s records await their rescue that the NYCHS seeks to bring about with the help of the Harlem Community Justice Center and the Municipal Archives. [A NYCHS photo]

The Sixth District Prison was variously referred to as Fordham Prison or Morrisania Prison. The 1875 structure was replaced in 1924 with another. This, at161st near Third Ave., the Bronx, provided six pens for men and three for women.

In 1895/6, the DOPCC split into the Department of Public Charities (which later became the Department of Public Welfare and the Health and Hospitals Corp.) and the Department of Correction (DOC). About 10 years later, DOC opened the Eighth District Prison in West Farms, the Bronx. It was moved from Williamsbridge to 1014 East 181st St., the Bronx, in 1915.

In both Bronx District Prisons (6th & 8th), control was divided between the Department’s Keepers and the County Sheriff’s deputies.

[Doorway to court stairs]
Historic Harlem Courthouse, home of the 5th District Prison whose interiors are shown in the other images on this page. Unless other identified, the photos by DCAS photographer Lisa Clifford.

A 12th District Prison opened in Washington Heights in 1929. Various reports listed it at 457 W.151st St. Some reports also listed it as 1130 St. Nicholas Ave.

There were no 10th or 11th District Prisons but a facility in the lower Manhattan --at 300 Mulberry St. and later at a Mott St. address -- served as a detention jail for traffic court inmates and homicide prisoners.

In the 1930s, the district prisons had a turnover of inmates running about 70,000 a year. Usually, these jails were under the general supervision of one warden for all of them. For many years that warden was Sidney W. Brewster.

By 1945, the district prisons had been reduced to four and functioned as detention pens: Jefferson market, Essex Market, Yorkville and Harlem. In 1946, Yorkville and Harlem Courts were consolidated into the Mid-Manhattan Arrest and Summons Court and the Jefferson and Essex Market Courts were consolidated into the Lower Manhattan Arrest, Summons, Traffic and Home Term Courts. The last two district prisons -- Harlem and West Side -- were discontinued in mid-1949.

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