A Proper Regard for the Unfortunates:
Origins of the Jail System in Westchester County, N. Y.
(#1 of 9 parts)
By Anthony J. Czarnecki, Westchester County Correction Dept Chief of Staff (ret.).
The text and images are presented here by permission of the author and the Westchester County Historical Society that published them as the cover article, "A Proper Regard for the Unfortunates," in the Spring 2006 edition of its Westchester Historian. All rights retained and reserved.

During our early history, persons accused of crimes in Westchester County were confined in holding cells that were built into the 1st County Court House in the Town of Westchester, which is now eastern Bronx County (1720-1758), the 2nd County Court House in White Plains (1759-1775), and both the 3rd and 4th County Court Houses that were built in 1787 in Bedford and White Plains.

Much of what appears in this web presentation was published as the cover article of the Spring 2006 edition of the Westchester County Historical Society's Westchester Historian. Click the cover image above to access its site.

This early plan to handle prisoners in a Court setting, not in a separate jail facility, proved to be unworkable.

The origins of our present-day jail system can be traced to three important events in the 1850s that converged to make a strong case for building the first County Jail in Westchester County:

  1. the findings of a grand jury on the condition of pre-trial holding cells in 1853,
  2. the creation of a special committee on county buildings at the annual meeting of the Westchester County Board of Supervisors in 1854, and
  3. the inspection of jail cells at the old County Court House in White Plains by the Prison Association of New York in 1855.

On June 8, 1853, the grand jury of the Westchester County Court of Oyer and Terminer (the court "to hear and determine" criminal cases for the N. Y. State Supreme Court) issued a critical report on the holding cells for prisoners:

Anthony J. Czarnecki, above, this article's author, served as Chief of Staff in the Westchester County Department of Correction. A past president of the New York State Probation Officers Association and the Middle Atlantic States Correct- ional Association, Chief Czarnecki chaired the American Correctional Association's Professional Ethics Committee.

An Iona College graduate, he holds an M. A. in criminal justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an M.P.A. from Pace University. He is a member of the NY Correction History Society and the Westchester County Historical Society. Click image above for the web site of the Westchester County Department of Correction.

"The Grand Jury of the County of Westchester in closing their labors at the present term of the Court of Oyer and Terminer desire to call the attention of the Court to the condition of the common jail of said county which the Jury have visited and examined.

"The Jail is kept as cleanly and healthful condition, as is practicable in case of a jail, whose cells are subterranean; but the Jury are of opinion that the situation of the jail in the basement of the Court House is improper and prejudicial to the health of persons confined therein; and that from the location and construction of the cells it is difficult, if not impossible to ventilate them properly, especially in the winter." [End note #1]

On November 13, 1854 the Westchester County Board of Supervisors convened its annual meeting at the old County Court House on South Broadway in White Plains (where the State Armory now stands).

The meeting was chaired by Board Chairman Joseph T. Carpenter of New Castle, who functioned as the legal authority for the County government, before the emergence of an elected County Executive in the 1930s, Until 1959, the elected Town Supervisors served a dual legislative role as voting members of the Westchester County Board of Supervisors.

In 1854, a special committee of the Board of Supervisors - headed by Robert Cochran of White Plains - presented a report and resolution on the state of the existing County buildings:

". . . the present condition of the Court House, Jail, County Clerk's and Surrogate's offices call[s] for immediate measures. . .

Above: 1st Westchester County Jail (1856 - 1932)

In 2006, Westchester County will mark the 150th anniversary (sesquicentennial) of its jail system. The first County Jail was built in 1856 on Martine Avenue in White Plains. A three-story building with 36 cells, it functioned as a correctional facility for 75 years until officially closed in 1932.

The building was then used to store County government records until finally demolished in 1957. Designed by Robert Hatfield of New York City and built by Seth Bird of Tarrytown, the 1856 Jail played a central role in the criminal justice system that emerged during the 19th century in Westchester County, NY. (Photograph courtesy of Westchester County Historical Society)

"The condition of our Jail has been repeatedly made the subject of complaint to former Boards of Supervisors, a grand jury of the County having represented it as unfit for the purposes to which it is devoted, and it has been forcibly impressed upon the minds of your committee, that humanity and a proper regard for the unfortunates confined therein, demand a radical and speedy alteration in the position and appointments of this portion of the public buildings included in this resolution...

"Public edifices are the true indications of a people's spirit and enterprise and, in the opinion of your committee, the energetic inhabitants of this county will be happy to see the present erections give way to a substantial and commodious edifice more worthy of one of the foremost counties in the State. " [End note #2]

Serving with Mr. Cochran on the special building committee were: Abraham Hatfield, William Marshall Jr., Daniel Hunt, and William G. Ackerman.

In their report, they cited an 1849 state law that gave the Board of Supervisors the power to change the location of public buildings after observing matters of public notice and when the distance shall not exceed one mile. " [End note #3]

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The New York Correction History Society (NYCHS) presents here text and images from A Proper Regard for the Unfortunates: Origins of the Jail System in Westchester County, N. Y. by NYCHS member Anthony J. Czarnecki, Chief of Staff (ret.), Westchester County Correction Dept. We do so with permission from both the author and the Westchester County Historical Society that published the history as the cover article in the Spring 2006 edition of its Westchester Historian. All rights retained and reserved. The NYCHS webmaster added sepia tint to the grayscale images made available for this presentation. NYCHS acknowledges the help of Westchester Correction Sgt. Donald Smith and Sgt. Fred Anderson.