I Want Love and Affection, not the House of Correction

Summer, 2005. Photos scanned from 35mm prints.

Like most other institutions in Northville, the Detroit House of Corrections–or DeHoCo, as it is colloquially known in the area–has an interesting little history. The original House of Correction was like a medieval castle built in the slum area of Detroit's Eastern Market in 1860 (now the site of the Brewster-Douglass Projects), to replace the then inadequate and filthy Wayne County Jail.

"So malodorous had it become," states an 1898 text, that the jail had been indicted as a public nuisance by no less than "some five grand juries." The new DeHoCo became rather infamous as a terrible rat-infested dungeon itself however, but it was noted then as "the only institution in Detroit that pays an annual income into the city treasury."

The reason for this is that not only was it built to accept prisoner overflow from the county, but the state as well, and even the federal justice system. Because there was not yet any federal prison built west of Detroit prior to 1875, the original DeHoCo therefore housed federal prisoners originating from the West, such as Billy the Kid, which brought lots of federal subsidy into city coffers. Furthermore, it was the only prison in Michigan that received female inmates, which meant that it also housed such notorious woman outlaws as Belle Starr, Sophie Lyons Burke and Julia M. Barker. Another notable historic figure locked up at DeHoCo was David K. Udall, the infamous Mormon polygamist (back when that was illegal).

The first superintendent of DeHoCo was Zebulon Brockway, a "penologist," who is sometimes referred to as the father of prison reform. One of his chief innovations while in Detroit was the concept of "work and release" supervision programs, and "indeterminate sentencing." We know this concept today as "parole." Brockway also got a law passed though the state legislature that would allow for discretionary release of "common" prostitutes, but it was overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court.

DeHoCo (like Detroit itself) was immediately overcrowded, almost as soon as it was opened. By 1919 the city was looking to expand it, which was when they bought the acreage out in Plymouth Township that would eventually become the site of the new prison we see today. It started as a farm in 1920 and housed bootleggers, who lived in tents, according to an article in the January 27, 2002 Detroit News.

The "new" DeHoCo was designed in 1927 by Albert Kahn (you might know his name by now) and was completed by 1930, when the Purple Gang was at the height of their power. It consisted of two divisions, a Men's and a Women's, one on either side of Five Mile Road, which was back then known as Phoenix Road. Of course, Five Mile is also the border between Plymouth and Northville Townships (aerial view).

DeHoCo was immortalized in a song by Nathaniel Mayer in 1966 called "I Want Love And Affection (Not The House Of Correction)," released on Detroit-based Fortune Records. If I heard right, he wrote the song while he was incarcerated there. "I can't siiit, no no, in DeHoCo...!" It stands to reason that the joint may have gotten a little crowded after the '43 and '67 Riots.

The radical revolutionary poet John Sinclair (White Panther Party leader, and manager of the MC5) was sentenced to six months in DeHoCo in February of that same year for marijuana possession. His later incarceration in 1969 for the same offense, and sentence of 10 years in Marquette State Prison led to a protest movement and subsequent court case that resulted in the decriminalization of marijuana possession in Michigan, and served as the genesis of the famous "Hash Bash" held yearly in Ann Arbor.

The prison was also the setting of the short story How I Contemplated the World From the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again, written in 1969 by famous Detroit author Joyce Carol Oates. In August of 1971 the female inmates of DeHoCo staged a sit-down to protest the "paternalistic, sexist" and inhumane conditions there, but their list of demands was ignored by prison officials.

The division on the north side of Five Mile Road appears to have been demolished in favor of a newer facility, known as Scott Correctional (for women), while the division on the south side of the road was in and out of use from the 1970s to the present day. It took on the name Phoenix Prison, then finally Western Wayne County Correctional Facility. By 1986, the remainder of it that was not already in Michigan Department of Correction hands was transferred over to state control, and DeHoCo ceased to exist as a City of Detroit institution.

Its water tower and original penal cottages were demolished at some point to make way for modern buildings, but the old main cellblock and administration building remain–starkly whitewashed, but evidencing decay nonetheless.

By the close of 2004, DeHoCo had shut down for good. We had begun reconnaissance on it and snuck in a few times well before it was actually abandoned.

We first checked out a guard tower on the perimeter, which offered these nice overviews of the campus and helped us to develop a plan of attack:

It appeared that maintenance men were still present during the day, and power was still on, but at night the only defense was a couple streetlights and the three perimeter fences.

We attacked from the woods. Getting past the outer fence was easy enough, but the second one had about six helixes of razor-wire attached to the inside and presented a little more of a challenge. Between the second and third fences was an electric fence consisting of about four 18-gauge wires strung to six feet off the ground. It was of course, deactivated.

Once we were all the way through (which took a nerve-wracking 20 minutes), entry to the cottages was as simple as walking though an open door.

Inside they were basically bare and clean, and there was sadly no sign of any utility tunnels that might connect to the main buildings.

I would later learn that this type of medium-security building was a design that was identical to others built at different prisons across the state, such as Dunes Correctional in west Michigan, and Camp Brighton, which I later explored in different posts on this website.

This open area was the recreation room for this particular unit:

The only artifact to be had was a prisoner ID card I found on a windowsill in one of the small cells. I wished I had a screwdriver so I could check behind the cover plates on the light switches for stuff that prisoners might have stashed, haha.

The next time we came, we approached using the same forest trail that we had taken before, but this time slid right through the fences. The late-summer twilight was beginning to glow as we covered the last stretch of dewy tall-grass clearing.

At the property line were signs stating that this was prison property, quoting the exact state law that we were breaking by trespassing here. The air was crisp, cool, dry…a perfect evening with just a hint of autumn warning. Slight veils of mist hung close over the open fields, illuminated by the huge green face of the harvest moon.

We crossed the prison yard with a quickness and entered the main cell block building through the open backdoor; we found exercise rooms and random stored junk along the way.

The doors leading up into the stairwells were gigantic and made of 3/8" plate steel with tiny barred windows. The latches on them were heavy solid steel bolts. Everything here was hardened, as if built to withstand the most dire of human circumstances, in order to be impervious to any rampage a mere mortal could dish out (and the retaliatory action necessary to put a stop to those rampages by authorities). The main hallway leading from the back door had several constriction points where it was gated off by 2" steel bars with a single door in the middle.

Upstairs we found the lighted main hall with the plain lobby at one end, its walls’ decor solely dependent on that familiar “institutional” tile, and the warden’s office at the other. Offices were to either side. The main security checkpoint was at the center of all this, a plexiglas-armored booth controlling a motorized security door leading into the hall to the main block.

Inside the booth was an office and small armory, behind a stout vault door. In the vault was a gun rack, and on one wall were pegs that once held various tools, identified by their respective silhouettes painted on the wall behind where they would have been hanging.

 Among them were silhouettes of giant, cartoonishly huge bolt-cutters, fire-axes, and pry-bars, for god knows what…maybe in the extreme circumstance that prisoners rioted and barricaded themselves in a certain cellblock, or likewise imprisoned officers in a cellblock. Seeing just the silhouettes where these monster tools would have been was a bit ominous.

The front of the booth had a key rack, and a bank teller-style drawer in it for when police came in and had to surrender their sidearm, seeing as no weapons were allowed past the checkpoint:

The sidearms would have been stored in the armory vault. Next to the drawer was a trap tube for dry-firing one’s pistol into, to make sure it was empty before surrendering it. If the gun did happen to go off, the tube would catch the bullet.

The motorized door would activate when we pulled on it, sliding open for a few seconds so we could walk through before closing again on its own. In a supposedly abandoned building, that was a bit unnerving. We checked several times to make sure that it would not lock behind us. Nearby were the visitation rooms, essentially two thick plexiglas cells within a cell.

To get in, one first had to pass through a three-inch plexiglas steel-framed door that must have weighed a couple hundred pounds. Inside was a box made of the same 3"-thick plexiglas divided into two separate sections, one for the visitor, one for the prisoner. Each had a door like the first one with a deadbolt on the outside, to seal the person in; a phone line connected the two.

Although the administration building didn't have a photogenic Art Deco-styled lobby like I was hoping for, I was impressed by the swanky, walnut-paneled warden’s office (whose lights, as you can see in the photo above, still worked when we flipped the switch). Albert Kahn must have restrained himself pretty good to keep this place looking so spartan.

After checking that out, we went up to the cellblocks. This next photo shows what I believe was a dining area:

Two rows of barred single cells were on each wing, with a central staircase. The cell doors were operated individually or all together by a purely hydraulic system controlled through a cabinet at one end containing a big brass dial and a huge lever:

The dial could be spun to indicate the number of which cell was to be opened or closed, or to “A” for “All.” The thing still worked, even though it looked like original 1920s equipment.

My partner Chisel demonstrated how it worked, pulling the lever with a loud, authoritative “ka-CHUNK!” followed by a slow grinding sound, and eventually the rolling and clanking of steel parts going into or out of battery for several seconds, and finally the infamous “ker-CLANK” of the cell door slamming shut.

We messed with it for quite some time because it was just so damn cool. How often do you ever get to play with something like this? Never, that's when. It was a relief to know however that it was the one time we’d be able to without being stuck here for 90 days or more.

I wonder which cells were Nathaniel Mayer's and John Sinclair's? Heh.

Author Robert Conot wrote that the women's division of DeHoCo is unique among American municipal prisons. In 1861 Detroit was still the only sizable city in southeastern Michigan, and produced almost all of Michigan's female offenders. The state therefore decided to house all of its female prisoners there instead of building a dedicated Michigan women's prison, and that was how the state of affairs stood until modern times.

Conot wrote that the population was not separated according to offense, and the "lifers" were mixed with the "thirty-day drunks," and homosexuality was even more prevalent than in the men's division of DeHoCo. There was no staff psychologist in the entire Michigan prison system at that time either, and psychopaths were in circulation amongst the population as well.

In the back wall of each cell was a three-inch hole leading into the “tunnel” that ran between the back-to-back rows of cells. I can only assume this was to enable the guards to monitor each cell at all times.

On the other side of the cell block were large rooms that I guess were a dining area, and toilets were at the far end on the other side of a short cinderblock wall.

The windows of the cellblock were heavy steel-framed beasts, all operated in tandem by a large steel crank. It would take a wrecking ball to smash them out.

*   *   *

The first time I technically infiltrated DeHoCo was way back in August, 1998. What I presumed to be the former warden’s house sat abandoned across the street from the still-active DeHoCo (then Western Wayne County Correctional). Mere yards from this 1930s-era mansion stood the old rusted “DEHOCO” water tower; or at least that’s what used to be written on it in huge, faded letters.

Unfortunately the only photos I have of this place are stills taken from VHS video.

As far from Detroit as this institution was placed, it was still possible on a clear day to see the city, if you climbed the watertower. I went up there twice, and it was the first time I had ever climbed a water tower. It was a janky-ass old one from the 1920s, that was rusty and made creaking noises in the wind, but you could see forever from up there. Maybe the one place that it was possible to see both Ann Arbor and Detroit simultaneously.

Actually, it was mostly the rickety ladder that freaked me out…when you get near the top it went from being on a slant to completely vertical, and it almost felt like it was leaning backwards. Not to mention it was a little bent:

Little did I know, it would be the first in a long and prestigious line of janky-ass old water towers that I would come to climb in the next decade.

But it had a good view of the prison itself. Notice that there is another water tower on the grounds, as well as an extra structure behind the cell block, neither of which are there anymore:

Other structures dotted the property where the warden and his family stayed while in the employment of the City of Detroit...

They included a horse stable, a garage, several small farm buildings, and a pretty stone birdbath that had become totally lost in the snarl of grab-grass that had enveloped the house.

The rear of the garage:

Here was the stable:

Not sure what these were, but they reminded me of servants' quarters:

The couple times that I had spent a summer evening meandering about the pleasant grounds of this residence, I was struck by how peaceful the area was.

Back then, it was still a remote area of Wayne County that had not yet been reached by the tidal wave of McMansion sprawl. It was farmland that had been reclaimed by nature, and there were some deep dark woods nearby.

One could hike from here on 4x4 trails through dense forest all the way to the old “Northville Tunnels,” and not come across another human (except for hopping across the road).

The house itself was so buried in foliage that I could not even get a real shot of it.

Inside the warden's house it was apparent that the place had been a teen hangout for some years, as there were hardly any windows not broken, and Metallica had spray-painted their name on the wall over a fireplace:

The master bedroom on the second floor was very impressive, with a sweet crenellated balcony accessed through large swing-out glass doors, framed in solid bronze:

In the basement were a couple rooms that looked like they were partitioned off for inboarders in later years…though they were in a condition as if they had been set up by squatters.

The one had a collection of black literature and a portrait of former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, a definite throwback to the 1980s when this was a Detroit-run institution. The portrait had been kicked in, undoubtedly by the foot of some suburban youth caught up in the antagonism that Mayor Young fostered in those days between city and suburbs.

There was also a copy of Jet Magazine from 1980 with Stevie Wonder on the cover (posted with the address of the "Detroit Hse of Corr."), some inmate store order vouchers, and prisoner property retrieval forms.

To my dismay, I realized that by 2001 this “Warden’s House” and all the structures surrounding it had been cleared away in favor of a giant new sprawlvelopment. I don’t know if they’re still out there today, but the only remnants that I could ever find of the “Warden’s House” were the flower garden borders made of old clay bricks half-buried in the ground.

Landmarks of Detroit, a History of the City, by Robert B. Ross and George B. Catlin
American Odyssey, by Robert Conot, pg. 407
January 27, 2002 Detroit News
Guitar Army, by John Sinclair