(#4 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.
In 1866, the Board of Supervisors authorized the expenditure of $100 (a considerable sum of money at the time) "to purchase books for the use of the prisoners in the County Jail". That same year, the first reported suicide took place at the County Jail -- a woman described as a "maniac," who jumped from the top tier, killing herself instantly.
Two years later in 1868 (as was the custom of the time), a grand jury investigated conditions at the County Jail and on August 28' issued the following findings:
"We find that there are about 36 cells in the Jail, and that there are now about 90 persons confined therein for almost all grades of crimes.. There are no separate apartments for females or juveniles and that the females are usually confined on the upper tier of cells in the Jail and the juveniles are necessarily confined with the other prisoners.
"There is no hospital department connected with the Jail in any way and no place where a person seriously ill can receive proper attention or treatment. There is no place for the Jailor to reside in connection with or contiguous to the said Jail. There is no place in which any of the prisoners in confinement can be made to labor, as the Jail is at present constricted..." [End note #22]
The Grand Jury filed a presentment and advanced five recommendations:
In an historical footnote, one of the 15 grand jurors in 1868 was Seth Bird, the contractor who built the Jail 12 years earlier in 1856. He apparently saw no conflict of interest in serving on this special grand jury and recommending that the County government should issue a new construction contract to expand the original facility.
The Westchester County Board of Supervisors responded to the long-standing concerns of the Physicians to the Jail and the findings of the Grand Jury by creating a Committee on the Conditions at the County Jail. Headed by Hezekiah B. Robertson, the Bedford Town Supervisor, they issued a series of recommendations on December 2, 1868. The consensus opinion of the group was as follows:
"An entire compliance with the suggestions of the Grand Jury will involve the expenditure of a large sum of money - from $50,000 to $75,000 probably - and this sum, added to the already large indebtedness of the County, will bear heavily upon the who pay the taxes. Your Committee are of the opinion that if the object sought by the Presentment - namely a less crowded jail and a separation of the sexes - can be accomplished, even to a moderate extent by other means than by largely increasing the burdens of taxation, such measures should be adapted." [End note #23]
The Committee on the Conditions at the County Jail suggested a three-part plan of action:
The Board of Supervisors adopted the Robertson plan and authorized its Committee on Repairs and Supplies to make the necessary alterations at the County Jail.
The needed building alterations were reinforced by an independent inspection of the Westchester County Jail that was conducted by the Prison Association of New York in 1868. Their report was authored by Robert L. Dugdale, who served on the Executive Committee of the Association:
"Of the jails visited by the undersigned, this is the best in some respects, although very defective in many others. Its advantages are, that it is built of stone, is secure, located upon a dry and healthy spot which can be easily drained, with abundance of water, which is provided from a well inside the building, and that there are privies in each cell which dispense with the night tubs.
"These points are proved by inspection, and by the facts that there have been no escapes for several years, and that during the past ten months there has been neither sickness nor death in the prison.
"The disadvantages are -
"1st. That the jail is overcrowded, there being only 36 cells for 101 prisoners, the maximum number at one time during the year.
"2nd. That there is no effectual separation of the sexes, as the men who are unconfined, can easily climb from tier to tier to where the women are locked. Neither is there any classification of prisoners. The jail of this county has been presented by the grand jury in consequence of its overcrowded condition, and measures are promised that will result in the enlarging of the building in such a manner that women and children will be effectually separated from the men.
"3rd. The ventilation of the cells is so arranged that the inmates can stop it if so disposed, and the ventilation of the building is so imperfect that it cannot supply the deficiency caused by this stoppage.
"4th. The sheriff complains that there is no adequate means of washing the whole person, as there is no bath.
"Of the discipline and management, it may be said that there has been no need of punishments sufficiently severe to require mention; that the privies are cleaned every morning and frequently disinfected; that the jail is washed out once a week; that the prisoners receive three meals a day - for breakfast and supper, bread, molasses and mush, and for dinner, meat, potatoes, bread and soup on different days, as the case may be. The prisoners are not provided with work, but have a library which they use considerably, while frequent religious services, conducted by both clergymen and laymen, are held. There were no complaints made by prisoners of either bad treatment or insufficient food." [End note #25]
Apparently the expected changes to the physical plant were not forthcoming, because the Presiding Judge of the County Court of Sessions impaneled another special grand jury the following year to examine the Jail and "ascertain its conditions." Their findings were delivered on August 5, 1869:
"We do therefore respectfully present that the welfare of the community and the proper care of the persons confined in the Jail imperatively call for immediate action and additional accommodations. We do further present and recommend that the Board of Supervisors be urgently requested to give their early and earnest attention to the consideration of this subject in order that the evils complained of may be removed." [End note #26]
Two years later in 1871, the Prison Association of New York became alarmed about the state of overcrowding at the Westchester County Jail, as noted in its 1871 inspection report:
"The stately stone prison at White Plains is, unquestionably, the most overcrowded, and also the most populous of any jail in the State - excepting, of course, the Tombs in New York."
"As repeated visits of inspection there were 113 prisoners found in this jail, 15 being females. At the last inspection, 72 of the inmates were found lodged in the 64 cells, and the remaining 41 were bunked in the corridors.
"The cells are along a central oblong block three tiers high, and with the corridor open all around. There is no attempt or possibility of separating the male from the female prisoners, except as they are respectively locked in their cells.
"The rapid increase of crime and vagrant pauperism in Westchester county would justly alarm its citizens, if they would, at the jail and the almshouse, examine into the sources and nature of the evils.
"There is a record of facts relating to the sources of crime and disorderly life in Westchester county, the gross intermingling of criminals, vicious, and pauper elements of the population, the utter failure of reformatory results in the convicts, whether at White Plains jail or Sing Sing prison, and a record also of the actual cost of crime in this county, which must be carefully studied by thoughtful citizens ...
"With twice as many prisoners as it has cells, and with crime and vagrancy rapidly increasing in this county, and with an aggregate cost of crime and pauperism that is almost unparalleled, the work of reform and entire change in the methods of cure and of prevention of the social ulcers will need to be skillful and thorough." [End note #27]
That same year, a special grand jury criticized the "herding of prisoners" and made an urgent plea for expansion of the County Jail:
"We find that there are but 34 cells in the Jail and that there are now over 100 persons confined therein for almost all grades of crimes, consisting of males and females of mature age and juvenile offenders and that the sexes are separated only by placing the females in the upper tier of cells and that conversation carried on in one cell or upon either tier of cells can be distinctly heard anywhere within the Jail.
"The present excellent sanitary condition of the Jail is in our judgement entirely due to indefatigable exertions of the Sheriff and the Jailor.
"That the need of a place for the confinement of female prisoners in the Jail separate from and outside the enclosure where males are confined is so glaringly manifest and confessedly imperative that it would seem to be an opportunity on our part at once unnecessary and offensive to call your attention to a matter which for several years past has been presented to the Court and through the Court to the Board of Supervisors of this County by different bodies of Grand Jurors and not only has this improvement been recommended by them but it has been urgently advocated by the Sheriff, County Judge, District Attorney, Prison Physician and others but has failed to receive the attention due so important a subject and the undersigned deem it their duty to again press it upon the attention of the Court and urge that proper measures be adopted to suppress the evils attendant upon this indiscriminate herding of prisoners by building an addition to the present Jail Building that shall afford the necessary increased accommodations. " [End note #28]