This special Preface to the Katharine Bement Davis mini-history was researched, written and first posted on the web during New York City’s Consolidation Centennial. It retells a part of the Davis story reflecting the historical reality that municipal Consolidation did not immediately confer five-borough jurisdiction on the Correction Department.
New York City’s 107th mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, launched the official Consolidation Centennial observance May 5th, 1997, by unveiling that charter in City Hall. Signed into law May 4th, 1897, the document mandated more than 40 local governmental units merge into a single multi-borough municipality on January 1, 1898. Celebration of the 100th Birthday of the Five Boroughs -- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx -- continued throughout 1998.
Interestingly, January 1, 1914, the day Katharine Bement Davis was appointed Correction Commissioner, thus becoming the first woman ever to head a major New York City agency, was also the day Bronx Borough was additionally recognized as Bronx County, thus becoming the city’s fifth and final country as well as the state’s 62nd and final county.
Greater New York began a little more than one hundred years ago as one municipality of four counties of the state, three of which were also boroughs of the city (Kings/Brooklyn, Queens and Richmond/Staten Island). Prior to Consolidation, New York County and New York City had been one and the same. With Consolidation, New York County remained one county but became two boroughs: Manhattan and the Bronx. The distinction between being a New York City borough that was also a New York State county and being simply one of two boroughs within a county was significant, especially from the Bronx viewpoint.
Each of the other so-called outerboroughs -- Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island -- had county facilities, agencies and office-holders. Those counties had their own identities prior to consolidation. Not so the Bronx. Lower Manhattan was homebase for the county governmental units, particularly the courts. This geopolitical estrangement intensified the Bronx communities’ prior experiences of disconnection.
But, whereas that plan provided all the boroughs have borough president offices, only the Bronx did not have its own county court with related officials, staffs and facilities. Trekking to court at the tip of Manhattan island from mainland Bronx was no easy task, even with the Third Avenue El. This was true for lawyers, complainants, plaintiffs, unincarcerated defendants, witnesses and jurors. Over the years a strong constituency for county designation grew directly from the logistical inconvenience as well as from resentment at perceived second-class status. Add to the mix the desires of the ambitious and the civic-minded for the opportunities of public service and public employment that would result from country recognition.
In 1912, responding to the Borough of the Bronx efforts to achieve identity equal to Kings, Queens and Richmond, the state legislature enacted a law authorizing that borough's establishment as the County of Bronx (no "the"), effective January 1, 1914.
The effect of that development on the city Department of Correction (DOC) ran in a somewhat different direction than other DOC-related developments dating from Consolidation. Initially, the emergence of Greater New York in 1898 brought about little change in the agency’s operations. It continued control over only New York County jail facilities and their inmates. The county sheriffs of Kings, Queens and Richmond County retained control over their respective institutions and inmates.
In 1900, what would eventually prove a significant change in the authorized powers of the office of Correction Commissioner took place in the City Charter. It removed a restriction on the Commissioner’s powers to transfer inmates from one DOC facility to another. Previously, such transfers could be justified only if necessary to prevent overcrowding. The charter amendment permitted transfers at the Commissioner’s discretion. While DOC remained confined to New York County, the impact of that wider latitude in transfers was limited. But as the jail system began to encompass facilities in the city’s other counties the significance of the revision grew dramatically.
In 1905, the state Legislature mandated shutdown of Kings County Penitentiary and the removal of its inmates to the New York Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). The Kings Penitentiary closing and its inmate transfers were completed February 3, 1907. On July 19 that same year, DOC’s jurisdiction was extended by the Legislature to cover all Brooklyn criminal prisoners. That added to DOC’s list of facilities the Raymond Street jail known officially as the Kings County Jail. On January 1, 1908, its designation was changed to City Jail, Brooklyn.
For the next four years, DOC’s coverage took in Manhattan and Bronx Boroughs (New York County) and Brooklyn Borough (Kings County). On May 12, 1912, the Legislature extended DOC’s jurisdiction to include Queens County Jail. Later that same year, the lawmakers enacted authorization for Bronx Borough to become also Bronx County (effective in 1914) with its own county jail under its own county sheriff.
After the new Bronx County initiated its own jail operations, city correctional operations resembled a patchquilt. Police, sheriffs, the courts and DOC all had inmate custody responsibilities but, from borough to borough, county to county, the picture varied.
Repeated legislative efforts, begun as early as 1928, to consolidate the various correctional operations into the city Correction Department, thereby making its jurisdiction truly citywide, ran aground in the face of strong opposition from Bronx and Richmond groups. The City Charter of 1936 addressed part of the problem by giving DOC responsibility for all prisoner transportation and court detention pens. Even so, further legislation enacted in 1942 was required before actual implementation could take place. The 1936 City Charter, which took effect in 1938, also removed jurisdiction of the city hospital prison wards -- then in Bellevue, Kings and Fordham hospitals -- from the Police Department to DOC. In 1941, a public referendum was held on amending the City Charter to abolish the offices of the separate county sheriffs within the city and to transfer the sheriffs’ duties concerning criminal case inmate to DOC. The proposition was overwhelmingly approved. On January 1. 1942, DOC acquired the Bronx and Richmond county jail operations, including transportation of their inmates. On April 18, 1942, state legislation was enacted to recodify various laws in order to give complete jurisdiction over all criminal prisoners to DOC, with the City Sheriff having custody only of civil prisoners. Thus, 45 years after Greater New York was created as a multi-borough municipality, DOC achieved citywide jurisdiction.
Perhaps in the year 2042, city Correction will celebrate its own Consolidation Centennial.
*Copyright © 1997 by Thomas C. McCarthy and the New York City Department of Correction. All rights reserved.
-- Thomas McCarthy, NYCHS webmaster