Jack London's "Pen" - The Erie County Pentitentiary Susan Eck
Images not labelled are from the Buffalo Evening News as filed in scrapbooks of the Buffalo & Erie County Library.
The Erie County Penitentiary in 1922, its last days. Image source: BECHS annual publication, 1922
When future author Jack London, 18 years old and a self-professed hobo, was arrested in Niagara Falls for vagrancy in June, 1894, he was sent to the Erie County Penitentiary in Buffalo. The oldest portion of the facility was constructed in 1847, for "occupation of prisoners under sentence for minor offences, for whom there was neither room nor labor at the jail and whom it was not desirable to send to a state prison."
The map overlay above shows the neighborhood of the penitentiary in 1894, when the five acres extended from Fifth Street (now Trenton) to the Erie Canal. The landscape today is occupied by the Hope VI Lakeview housing redevelopment featuring homes that have replaced the 1930s-era Lakeview Projects.
Newly arrived inmate getting barbered.
The Pen, as it was commonly called in the city, had five buildings: the men's prison, women's prison, workhouse, warehouse, and superintendent's residence. Prisoners were sent there from Alleghany, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Wyoming, Genesee, Orleans, and Niagara counties.
When they arrived, prisoners had their hair and faces shaved, they were bathed and issued striped trousers, coat, shirt. They were also vaccinated, which in some cases caused infection.
In June, 1894, a reporter from the Courier visited the penitentiary and labelled it, "A Model Prison," just weeks before Jack London arrived. There were 873 men incarcerated; short term men like London were described as responsible for the overcrowded conditions. Of the 10,000 prisoners held during 1893, 6,120 were there for ten days or less.
Short term prisoners had no work assigned except as needs arose in the laundry or bakery. Long term prisoners were occupied in making pails, clothing and caned chairs. This made the Pen self-sustaining.
The reporter was satisfied that the food served to the prisoner was plentiful, something London refuted in detail. The reporter was also complimentary on the continuous cleaning and whitewashing being done.
men's corridor as Jack London would have experienced it. A new addition was built but was under-utilized when the incarcerated population numbers shrank in the early 20th century.
By 1903, long-term prisoners were no longer sent to the Pen, but only petty thieves, drunkards and "unfortunate women." Labor laws had eliminated prison industry and only the tailor shop and shoe repair operations were available to occupy prisoners' time.
Prisoners lined up in formation, one hand on the shoulders of the prisoner ahead of him. This was called "lockstep."
A female reporter in 1904 was impressed by the spotless facility which, at that time, was handling 4,000- 5,000 inmates per year. She noted that a number of women were "repeat customers" who, with nowhere to go when free, would find a way to be sent back. She concluded, "The head keeper says the pentitentiary is not so much a prison as a boarding-house where grown-up people are disciplined. Perhaps they grow used to stone floors and grated cells and keepers. Warm quarters, good food and good fellowship with not too much work may not seem repulsive - but it is awful to see people contented, shut up and watched like beasts."
The women's work room. These are making quilts for the prisoners.
The Pen had a chapel capable of holding 300 inmates at a time. On Sundays, there was a Protestant service and a Catholic mass. The Y.M.C.A., the Salvation Army, the Prison Gate Mission were a constant presence in the penitentiary.
Short term prisoners could have no visitors or write letters. Those with sentences longer than 30 days could write one letter a month and receive one visitor; a prisoner's lawyer could visit at any time.
By 1908, the annual total of prisoners passing through was 5,190, most for intoxication and a few for riding on trains.
The business of correctional institutions was becoming more regulated and individual facilities more scrutinized. Even a Buffalo Evening News reporter, otherwise impressed by the cleanliness of the Pen, remarked in detail about the lack of ventilation and the use of buckets in cells because there were no toilets.
A report by the Prison Association of New York about the Erie County Penitentiary in 1913 noted that there was not enough work to occupy the inmates' time. It also noted that the management desired an extensive farm.
This wish was realized when the Wende facility was opened in 1923 in rural Alden. Inmates were moved there and the 83-year old penitentiary was closed in 1925. Neighborhood children played in the derelict until it was dynamited in 1930. The land lay vacant until 1937 when it was included in a public housing project, funded by the federal government and managed by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, called Lakeview.
A "hall man" or trustee in his well-appointed cell, which was
7' 10" by 4' 6" by 7' high.
Jack London made good use of the material he collected during his month-long incarceration in Buffalo. In 1907, he published a book of his experiences as a hobo, entitled, "The Road." To read his two stories about Buffalo, see: being arrested in "Pinched," and serving his sentence in, "The Pen."
The Buffalo News Book Club February, 2012 selection was "Wolf: The Lives of Jack London,” by James L. Haley. Here is a related article by Anne Neville about the record of London's incarceration.