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)
My father lived at 69 center st and could look into the yard of the jail from the roof of the building. He painted a landscape of the jail. He told me that neighborhood kids would play ball in the street. When it flew over the wall, someone would toss it back. It became a game.
Steve– that’s a great memory, thanks. By any chance do you have the painting? I would love a photo of it.
Steve, my paternal grandfather died in a jail cell there. Could you send me a photo of your painting if you still have it. I do ancestry and trying to find all information on him. Thank you for any info. Joan
I was there 1970. If you took a chip of paint from the wall it was half inch thick with so many layers it seemed like a small Piece of rainbow. Once I got some bread stuck to the sole of my shoe. I unknowing put the shoes under my bunk and in the morning I could not see either shoe as they were covered with enraged cockroaches.
I don’t think I have to say much about this place because it is self explanatory other than the fact my name is mentioned here. Thanks for honoring my name to this Hell Hole article, it just supported the stories I have told my wife over the years.
i spent 6 months there in 1955 because i would not pay a trafic fine. My first15 days were in soitare . the rest of time was in a dormintory. They had 2 roits there..
how ever i enjoyed the experance. learned to play chess and ment a lot of interresting people.
Grant– Thanks so much for your comments and your very personal input. It’s good to hear from folks who did time there. Thanks again!
I’m not sure how I’ll be to send this if it even gets accomplished without giving my name so forth send Street jail was the worst hell-hole I ever been in I was in the bowlers as a 15 year old child holes in the floors of the rats will come up where you s*** they would throw that Neil’s at you through hole to just think of it brings back a whole nother case of PTSD has there ever been any lawsuits has there been any lawsuits especially against the juveniles by example I was on a whole to go to National Training school for boys Washington DC when they got me for attempted escape and put me in the hole I had a person told me he was 2 hours of that I think I lost my mind they had to take me out and bring me to the hospital they got in trouble for it because they should have got permission by the federal Marshal why was in the whole my mother tried to just me and current the hold the FBI so forth because I wasn’t Federal detainee I just want to know how do I stop the night names of the rats crawling on the pipes putting food out so they wouldn’t come into the cells oh I can tell you a lot about that hello I sort of like the copy of her some jails is that little changes if any since the Civil War such as Sim Street jail in Hartford Connecticut Reader’s Digest did a great job on that would you please contact me right now
Our family owned a pharmacy on the corner of Garden and Mather streets…. and when I worked there on summer evenings we’d hear inhuman cries, screams, colorful announcements generally regarding rats 🐀 and actual sobbing. The place had a rep back then…. in the late 60s. Very scary I cannot even describe what occurred after MLK was murdered in April of ‘68…. i think there were a number of escape …we had to shut up and board up the store for a while… it was pretty dicey. Didn’t know at that time how truly horrible the conditions were in that place; we did have a clue though after hearing those savage howling and wailing, night after night 😢
When I was a child we lived across the street from the jail. It.was a very noisy place, looking like a huge gothic castle. I can remember an uncle that was incarcerated there,and use to tell me to stop playing in the street.
I also lived across the street at 49 center st for some reason it seemed normal to live across the street from the jail at that time it was like it was a part of the neighborhood which now thinking about it was not normal