Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
For more than a century Seyms Street jail housed the criminal and the courageous. At one time or another, Wobblies, civil rights protestors, anti-war activists and Black Panthers all found themselves incarcerated there. Despite reformers’ attempts to improve the inhumane conditions, prisoners suffered.
The notoriety of this Hartford jail, known by its location instead of its name, exposed the truth behind the “progressive” U.S. criminal justice system; it even gained national condemnation in 1920 from a future Supreme Court judge.
Built in 1873 for 350 prisoners, the Hartford County jail sometimes held as many as 600 men and women during the summer months. There was no sewage line, so for a century inmates had to empty their own waste buckets. Medical care was almost non-existent, so prisoners might leave Seyms Street sicker than when they went in. Communicable diseases then became an even greater health hazard to the public.
At least 75 men escaped from Seyms Street over the years. The first was George Brewer in 1894 who fled on his horse Jeff to New Jersey. Others actually sawed through iron bars to escape. Some strolled away from work crews. Still others seized the moment, without much planning: In 1977 Howard Landry took off barefoot in his prison clothes. He was captured on the Route 84 highway. Archie Ferguson may have been the only man to break into the jail. At Christmas time in 1946 he threw a stone through a restaurant window so the police would take him to Seyms Street for shelter.
Most of Seyms Street jail’s history is not amusing, however. When the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids swept through Connecticut and the nation, 100 men were held for months at Seyms Street. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer rounded up immigrant workers, union organizers and suspected radicals on flimsy excuses. Those held prisoner were denied basic rights including not being charged with a specific crime or offered bail. Some were eventually freed; the foreign-born were frequently deported. Union efforts were crippled by Palmer’s actions and families were torn apart.
The Nation magazine helped lead the fight against the mass jailings around the country. In addition to popular protest against the incarcerations, a committee of well-known, highly respected lawyers investigated Palmer’s massive civil rights violations. One of those jurists was Felix Frankfurter of Massachusetts, appointed to the Supreme Court in 1939 by Franklin Roosevelt.
The first example in their May, 1920 report exposed conditions at Seyms Street. They criticized the use of four particular cells– called punishment rooms– that held political prisoners (those thought to be anarchists or communists). The cells were directly over the jail’s boiler room. The cell floor was often so hot an inmate’s hands or feet could burn. There were no windows and no light bulbs. Prisoners held in punishment rooms received one glass of water and a slice of bread every twelve hours. By any reasonable definition, the conditions amounted to torture.
Despite the bad publicity, nothing changed. A Connecticut legislative committee “sharply criticized” the jail in 1938 for its “medieval punishment cells.” In 1971 state lawmakers Leonard Frazier and Wilber Smith nailed a placard to the jail door with the words “Unfit for Human Occupancy” as part of their protest against Seyms Street conditions. Local college students held a rally the same year to bring attention to the worsening conditions. Inmates filed a class-action lawsuit in 1974 charging cruel and unusual punishment. In 1976 the Committee Against Police Repression led 150 people in a march to Seyms Street.
The CT General Assembly authorized funds for a new jail in 1966. It took ten years of fighting with suburban towns, who all rejected a facility in their towns, before Hartford was once again chosen as the building site. Seyms Street finally closed and prisoners were transferred to the new Hartford Correctional Center on Weston Street– still in the city’s north end– on July 6, 1977. Just one month earlier two men had committed suicide in their cells.
(Jail photos are from “The Steel Bar Motel” by Ed Fedorowich, 1995-2000, Authors Choice Press)