(#3 of 9 parts)
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.
At the 1855 annual meeting of the Westchester County Board of Supervisors - with borrowing authority now firmly secured - the building committee gave its first report. R. G. Hatfield of New York City was hired as the architect and Theodore Hunt was designated as the contractor.
It was agreed that the stone for the buildings was to be obtained free from a quarry on land owned by J. W. Tompkins of White Plains and that all sawing and planing of lumber was to be done by steam.
The construction of Westchester's first County Jail was not without setbacks and controversy.
In 1856, Seth Bird of Tarrytown (Supervisor of the Town of Greenburgh) was hired as builder of the Jail for the sum of $16,500. That same year, the building committee expressed satisfaction to their fellow supervisors with all the new County buildings, except the Jail, which they said "as commenced will be a miserable affair" because it was "entirely unsuited for the purposes for which it was designed" [End note #12]
As reported to the Board of Supervisors by contractor Seth Bird, work had been delayed by the difficulty in getting stone -- as originally planned - from a quarry in White Plains. This caused the masonry work to then consume $11,397 of his $12,000 allotment - before any carpentry work or furnishings to the building.
Seth Bird wrote an impassioned plea for help: "I am a loser in dollars and cents. I now humbly ask . . . your recommendation to the Honorable Board of Supervisors for such an allowance as you in your judgment may think proper and I shall ever be your humble servant." [End note #13]
The Board later authorized an additional $1,500 payment to Mr. Bird at its 1857 Annual Meeting. The bonds authorized by the State Legislature ultimately proved insufficient to fund the project.
Taxes were raised to cover cash advances from the County Treasury when project costs escalated to $120,040 over time. Cost overruns were apparently not uncommon in 19th century public works projects.
In July 1857 the Board of Supervisors was urged to press for a speedy completion of the Jail project, because the holding space in the basement of the County Court House on South Broadway in White Plains had only eight cells and twenty-nine occupants. The space was determined to be in a "dilapidated, insecure, and unwholesome condition." [End note #15]
Two months later on September 10, 1857 the jail project was not yet fully completed, but the Westchester County Court - presided over by Judge Selah B. Strong - adjourned to their new building on Main Street in White Plains. When the iron bridge connecting the new Jail to the new Court House was completed a short time later, prisoners were transferred to the new facility and the first Westchester County Jail was open for business, with Sheriff Daniel H. Little in charge. The Jail was located on Martine Avenue (directly across the street from where the present County Office Building now stands).
Later in 1857, surveyor John F. Jenkins billed the County of Westchester $50 for nine and one-half days of work to survey and map out the "Jail Limits" for the new facility. In a written report to Sheriff Little (dated November 24, 1857), Mr. Jenkins estimated that installation would cost an additional $30. and advised him of the following:
In compliance with your request, I have engaged the stone monuments to be placed at the several angles of the Jail Limits, at which such monuments would be necessary. They are to be of granite, of sufficient length to reach below frost and are to have J. L. cut upon the top . There are to be ten of them, and to be placed only where there is no other permanent object, as a road or a stream, to mark the bounds. " [End note #16]
During 1856-57, Sheriff Daniel H. Little began the process to equip the new County Jail with additional supplies to operate and purchased the following items:
During the first full year of operating the new County Jail in 1857, Sheriff Little sought and received $787.47 in reimbursement for the "boarding" of prisoners. He reported that he had received into custody 157 prisoners and discharged 139 prisoners during the year, for which the Sheriff's Office was entitled to receive 37 and 1/2 cents per day. The average length of stay was 35 days, which indicates that justice was swift and uncomplicated in the pre-Civic War period.
At its 1857 Annual Meeting, the Westchester County Board of Supervisors appointed A. J. Prime as Physician to the Jail at an annual salary of $100. They directed that he visit the Jail at least twice a week and report annually on conditions of the Jail, the number of prisoners treated, and any deaths in custody. The newly-appointed Physician to the Jail reported in 1857 that there were no deaths in custody and that he had treated 99 prisoners for a variety of ailments, including: 1 case of vertigo, 2 cases of dysentery, 4 cases of gonorrhea, 1 case of hysteria, and 23 cases of constipation - which was not a strong endorsement for the quality of jail food. In his first annual report to the Board of Supervisors, Dr. Prime took the liberty of raising a concern about housing arrangements in the new County Jail:
"I would also call the attention of the Board to another subject, which may not properly belong to my department, but which contain circumstances which have occurred in the jail, making it at least proper for me to mention. I refer to the fact that males and females are confined in the same department. They are in separate cells, it is true - but the women are within hearing of all the communication of the men, which is often of a character not of the most delicate kind." [End note #17]
During the Civil War, the Physicians to the Jail made other suggestions to improve sanitary conditions and medical treatment. In 1863, Dr. Prime reported that:
"The attention of the Board is respectfully called to the insufficient means of cleaning the privies in the cells, which in some cases allows them to become exceedingly unpleasant if not unhealthy. At a trifling expense tar the County, this can be effectively remedied." [End note #18]
Dr. Prime's successor, Dr. Henry E. Schmid, suggested the following in 1864:
"Although there are other points in which the Jail could be much improved, I content myself at this time to urge one object of great importance for the special consideration of the Board. It is the extreme need existing for the addition to the Jail of a sick room, where the severest cases could be transferred from the badly ventilated cells." [End note #19]
Dr. Schmid submitted a more detailed and impassioned plea on this subject in his 1865 report to the Board of Supervisors:
"My services as Physician to the County Jail have been unusually onerous during the past year, Syphilitic diseases played an even more prominent part than in previous years. The crowded and overcrowded state of all the cells, even necessitating the putting of cots in the corridors, could not fail to provide a high rate of sickness. That it did not reach a still higher grade is, in my estimation, entirely due to the excellent and intelligent attention of the Jailor to his duties.
"Numerous are the instances I could quote in which patients, very sick with diarrhea, barely escaped death, on account of the jail food - food constantly acting as cause for a renewed attack of the disease, and thus protracting recovery and increasing the already onerous duties of the Physician.
"But besides these facts, consider that what any hour could take place, and of which we must live in constant dread: it is the breaking out of a contagious disease. Nothing almost could prevent its raging throughout the whole Jail and it could most certainly spread to the village. There are no means of isolating contagious maladies. A typhoid fever would be an incurable disorder in our Jail - cholera would sure be fatal in every case. And for the latter especially we should everywhere be prepared. The only proper preparation for our Jail would be the erection of a hospital apartment.
"The Jail again needs a separate department for the female prisoners. In the present state of things, too frequent opportunities (and unavoidable ones) are given for both sexes to come into contact with each other, and not infrequently immoralities have been practiced in consequence of it. This alone is a point, which ought to call most urgently for remedial measures. But if you take into consideration that so frequently venereal diseases are met with amongst the inmates of the prison, of the most aggravated type, there is a constant fear that the result of these immoralities would turn our Jail into a perfect pest house of syphilis." [End note #20]
That same year, an inspection report on the Westchester County Jail by the Prison Association of New York provided a fascinating first-hand account on conditions of confinement in 1865:
"The jail was thoroughly clean; the garments of the prisoners and their bedding were also clean. There is a force pump within the jail, by which the prisoners may raise from the well any amount of water they require, or by turning a cock they may obtain rain water from a cistern in the yard. There is a sink in the corridor, where those not confined to their cells may wash as much as they please; those who are locked in their cells have water carried to them in pails.
"If the prisoners seem dirty when they come in they are stripped and thoroughly washed; if observed to neglect their ablutions afterwards they are compelled to wash. Soap is furnished by the county, but prisoners almost invariably bring their own combs with them. Towels are also furnished by the county, but many prisoners seem to take a malicious pleasure in destroying them, and some steal them when going out. No tubs or other appliances for bathing are found in the jail, one or two bathing tubs are very much needed. A brush and razor for shaving are provided for those who have none; the prisoners shave each other.
"The prisoners' clothes are washed once a week, or often if they desire it; the bed blankets are washed once in three weeks in summer, and once in four weeks in winter: There are four long and narrow windows on each side of the prison, but the cells are insufficiently lighted. There are three gas burners, which burn until 9 o'clock P. M. Two of them are then turned off; the other burns all night. Two coal stoves, one in each corridor, keep the prison (it is said) sufficiently warm in winter.
"There are no punishments employed, except that when disorderly, prisoners are locked in their cells in the day time; and sometimes, when very obstreperous, they are chained. The moral means employed are very slight. The jail is separated by a considerable distance from the court house, where the jailor sleeps. We were informed that he has always been aroused when his presence has been rendered necessary by illness in the night, but it seemed to us that some better means of communication ought to be provided...
"The women are confined in the upper tier of cells, and a strong iron door prevents the men from coming upon their gallery; but the men and women can see each other and converse together as much as they please. The demoralizing influence of this intercourse is very apparent, and calls loudly for a remedy...
"The jail is much too small for the number of prisoners confined there; the demoralization arising from association during the day is greatly aggravated by association at night. Twenty new cells ought to be added to the prison at once, and a wall erected through the middle of the corridor, so as to divide it into at least two apartments entirely separate from each other...
"The locks are situated about 16 inches from the jambs of the door, but they have been picked by prisoners within the cells by means of false keys made from the tin obtained from the japanned lamp tied to the piece of board. Five prisoners escaped in this way last year. After getting out of their cells, they cut through the roof and let themselves down to the ground by their bedding...
"Openings might be easily and usefully made through the wall between the inner and outer corridors, so that the keeper could see what was going on at any time without being seen himself . . . With these improvements, the jail would be very secure." [End note #21]