Detroit House of Correction (DeHoCo)

The year was 1966 when Nathaniel Mayer composed the song “I Want Love And Affection (Not The House Of Correction) while he was in jail. Unexpectedly it became an underground hit, but the history of the Detroit House of Correction started many years before that.

The original site for the Detroit House of Correction was in a big cottage in the Eastern Market approximately where the Brewster Projects are today. Shortly thereafter, as the contemporary documents noted, it became famous as a terrible rat-infested dungeon, but it was also “the only institution in Detroit that pays an annual income into the city treasury.” Originally the jail could pay the income because they collect funds from around the state due to the fact that it accepted criminals from all over the state including women and housed inmates aged 16-21, even though it should have belonged to the state of Michigan.  It was the first federal prison in the west side of Detroit and imprisoned well known criminals such as Billy the Kid and David K. Udall, an infamous Mormon polygamist.

Billy the Kid wasn’t the only notable prisoner in The House of Correction, in fact within those walls Belle Starr, Sophie Lyons Burke and Julia M. Barker served out their sentences as well.

An interesting fact about the DeHoco concerns the first superintendent, Zebulon Brockway. He was a Penologist, but he is also regarded as the “Father of prison reform” and the “Father of American Parole” in the United States. He was the first to introduce the theory that a prisoner must be rehabilitated and not only punished with serving the sentence. Brockway laid the foundation for modern law by introducing the concepts about “work and release” and “indeterminate sentencing”, what’s today known as  “parole”, namely  a prisoner can be released after serving part of his/her sentence if he/she  is deemed rehabilitated and no longer represents  a danger to society.

DeHoCo quickly became overcrowded so they started  looking for a different location that would allow an extension to contain the entire prison population in suitable conditions. The opportunity presented itself in 1919 when the city of Detroit purchased the area Plymouth Township and Northville Township for approximately $30USD, comparable to $430.05USD in 2016.

At first, in the 1920s, the jail was a camp where the prisoners, mostly bootleggers, slept in tents. The new complex was designed by Albert Kahn, he was known as “the architect of Detroit”, among his work there was in fact prestigious structures like Packard Motor Car Company’s factoryFord Motor Company’s Highland Park plant and  Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan.

The total cost for the new DeHoCo was 2.5mil USD, approximately 33.4mil USD in 2016, and the entire facility was completed in the 1930. It consisted of more 12 buildings  and divided into two section, one for  men (basically it was called Phoenix Prison and then known as Western Wayne County Correctional Facility) and another one for women (on the north side of Five Mile Road, it was called Scott Correctional then demolished to build a new facility).

In the new prison facility some of the criminals who served their sentences belonged to The Purple Gang. It operated in the Motor City since 1910’s and its members, largely from Jewish ancestry, were guilty of various crimes including gambling, armed robberies,  extortion, liquor and drug trade, kidnapping and several murders.

For six months the poet John Sinclair served his sentence for marijuana possession at the prison, before being sentenced to 10 years for the same crime a few years later at Marquette State Prison, Michigan.

In 1969, the Detroit House of Correction become the location for a short-story book entitled “How I Contemplated the World From the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates, famous Detroit-author and winner of prestigious literary awards.

In the summer of 1971 the women imprisoned at the DeHoCo decided to protest against the inhumane conditions they were subjected to in the facility, but they were ignored.

The complex was sold in 1986 to the Michigan Department of Corrections for $1.6mil USD, $3.5mil USD today. The DeHoCo was no longer a maximum security penitentiary, it was used only for some of the women prisoners’ rehabilitation programs until it shut down in 2004.

As you can see from the pics (taken in February 2016) the buildings of the penitentiary are in a total state of neglect, run-down and in absolute degradation . Over the years multiple acts of vandalism made in the building have led to an acceleration of the decline of the architechture.

The latest news about the DeHoCo is not very encouraging. In an article in Detroit Free Press , the lawmaker is seeking funds for the demolition of the structure .

Surely the demolition, regardless of it involving considerable expense to do (an initial estimate talks about a cost of $4mil) is still may be the fastest way to bring renewal to the area. Several different companies interests in investing in that site have been discouraged by the penitentiary facility. These problems and others are an unpleasant consequence of a city slowly recovering from a bankruptcy.

However, it’s sad to think that these historic structures are set to be razed to the ground because of the vandalism and degradation that accumulated over the years due to its abandonment. Some buildings could be converted and used for a multipurpose center, or as already happened to other sites (such as Missouri State Penitentiary) these historical structures that have been secured can become a source of income for the city by organizing tours and events; or perhaps becoming a location for a television series or feature films.