The 1810 Jail


The first Niagara County Jail, built in the Village of Buffalo, was completed in 1810. The structure, a solidly built stone building had been erected just north of the courthouse on Washington Street. In 1813, the British invaded and burned the village including the jail. Fortunately, the building being so solid suffered little damage. After some rehabilitation, the building served as the jail until Erie County constructed a new one in 1867.


After the redistricting of Erie and Niagara Counties in 1821, all county buildings were retained by Erie County. Until Niagara County could build a jail of its own, prisoners continued to be housed in the Buffalo facility.


The 1825 Jail


In 1821 the Niagara County Board of Supervisors for the newly redistricted Niagara County authorized $3,000 for the construction of a new jail and courthouse. Before work could be completed, the supervisors had to appropriate an additional $1,500 to cover expenses.


The building was to be built on land deeded by Colonel William Bon Bond was the brother-in-law of Jesse Hawley, the land commissioner persisted in selecting Lockport as the county seat. A land speculator, Bond went to work to find suitable land to turn a quick profit. In August of 1821 Bond found his way to Lockport Colonel Bond made it known that he came to Lockport to acquire land on which to build a glass factory. Word reached Esek Brown, a landowner in the village. Anxious to have Bond invest in the village, Brown offered the speculator his prime lots at whatever price Bond would pay. The two men settled on terms and Brown drew up an agreement.


One of the stipulations Brown wrote into the agreement required Bond to front $10,000 toward the construction of the factory. William Bond did not anticipate this clause, but signed the agreement anyway.


Rethinking the agreement, Bond realized he made a mistake. After all, with no real intention of building a factory, Colonel Bond could very well have ended up in court. This speculator needed to find a way out of the agreement, while at the same time retain this prime real estate.


Cleverly, Bond used a friend of Brown to point out how a glass factory would actually be a detriment to the area between the old Main Street and the canal from Transit Road up to the tavern. The friend described how the smoke and dust from the factory would ruin the neighborhood, making it uninhabitable for blocks.


Distressed over this news, Brown offered Bond some free land in return for moving the factory from the village. Bond would not agree and demanded he be released from building the factory, receive the free tract of land and be permitted to buy the square between Hawley Street and Transit Road and Niagara and New Main Streets for $700. Brown consented to the deal without hesitation. As a result, Colonel Bond secured the future site of the courthouse/jail.


Once the county took possession of this tract of land it became known as the Public Square. Later the area would be known as Courthouse Square.


The first courthouse/jail was built on Niagara Street, north of where the present-day courthouse now stands. Construction started in 1823 and was completed in 1825. Described as a solid looking, two-story stone structure covered with white plaster, the building measured about fifty feet by fifty feet, with chimneys on each of the four comers and a cupola in the center.


The first floor contained the majority of the rooms used by the sheriff. Four fairly large cells comprised the lock-ups for the Niagara County Jail. One of the cells, a dark dungeon, housed prisoners sentenced to solitary confinement. The first floor included the sheriff's office, living quarters and a small room used by the district attorney for the grand jury.


The second floor, accessible by two stairwells contained the space needed for court proceedings. This level provided a large courtroom and a "room for the bar."


From almost the first day the building opened it was inadequate. With only four cells, the jail constantly operated at capacity with as many as ten prisoners per cell. With no debtor cell available, non-criminals who owed debts were frequently confined with murderers, thieves and drunkards. Juvenile offenders were often placed with hardened criminals, a situation looked upon with disdain even in those times. In winter, a single stove heated the four cells. On the coldest of days, cell doors were opened and prisoners allowed to huddle around the stove to stay warm. As early as 1836 the state had regulations prohibiting the co-mingling of prisoners.


The possibility of escapes greatly increased. With overcrowded cells, it became difficult to properly secure the prisoners. In addition, three of the cells had windows through which prisoners could freely associate with friends. Security problems worsened. Some accounts tell of prisoners being passed saw blades to aid in their escape. Something had to be done.


Several grand juries, along with some judges strongly recommended that the board of supervisors allocate additional funds for a new jail or the construction of an addition to the existing one. Grudgingly, in 1840 the board granted approval for a new jail.


The 1842 Jail


In 1840, the Carpenter Brothers Construction Company was awarded the contract to construct a new jail. The Carpenters operated quarries along the canal banks that furnished much of the stone used for the early buildings in Lockport. The Carpenter family also erected the former county clerk's building that still stands on Niagara Street. An attempt was made by some officials to move the jail to a "more central location" on Main Street in the village, but the board of supervisors decided on the lot next to the existing facility.


The two story stone structure, built for a cost of about $4,500, was located on the west side of the courthouse/jail, abutting an enclosed exercise yard that separating the two structures. The jail would not be completed and ready for use until 1842, and the first official act in this building would be the hanging of David Douglass.


The new jail consisted of thirty-two cells, two being dungeons. The cells were four feet wide by ten feet deep. A debtor's room, juvenile room and woman's room was also part of this new building. These isolation areas helped eliminate the segregation problem the sheriff had with the first jail. The sheriff's residence remained at the courthouse.


One of the options judges had as an alternative for debtors would be to sentence the offender to jail limits. A person confined to jail limits would be restricted to a designated area, usually the corporate limits of the village. Early maps often highlighted jail limits with a dotted line around the acceptable area.


Despite having a new jail, the sheriff needed various outbuildings and shacks to prepare food for the prisoners. In June 1858, the grand jury upon inspecting these facilities found them in deplorable condition. Rain penetrated most parts of the building. In a letter to the Niagara County Board of Supervisors, the grand jury claimed that facilities were small and inadequate, recommending that suitable buildings replace those being used. The letter stated, "No farmer in fair circumstance would live in such a house, or suffer his family to do work there." In December 1858, supervisors allocated $4000 for a new sheriff's residence, along with alterations to the courthouse and yard. Once again, the Carpenter brothers were hired to perform the work.


Not until 1886 were improvements made to the jail. By this time, the antiquated jail demanded a great deal of renovation and additional space. With the completion of the new courthouse in 1887, a campaign began for a new jail. In 1890 modifications were made to the old courthouse for the incarceration of female juvenile delinquents and criminals. Finally, in January 1892, the County Board of Supervisors approved and accepted bids for the building of a new facility.


Before a new jail could be constructed a suitable location had to be found. The most logical location seemed to be east of the current jail. Before construction could begin, the old courthouse had to be torn down. In April, 1892, the seventy-year-old courthouse was razed, making room for the new jail.


The 1893 Jail



The agreement to build the new jail and sheriff's residence was awarded to three different contractors. William J. Blackley would perform the carpentry and masonry work at a cost of $17,840. American District Steam Company would install the steam heating for $1,386. The Powley Jail Manufacturing Company of St. Louis charged $25,674 for the iron and steelwork for the cells and windows. The whole jail would be completed for a cost of less than $50,000.


The three-floor red "Buffalo Brick" building and residence measuring 114 feet by 116 feet, accepted its first prisoners in April 1893. The jail contained fifty-three cells, constructed in cage style blocks with twelve double cells per cage. The cells were located on the first three floors with laundry, kitchen and dining room situated in the basement. Two spacious offices, a search room and bath occupied the first floor. Each cell measured seven by ten feet and contained a sanitary closet and wash bowl.


The first floor housed male prisoners (two in a cell) awaiting trial or grand jury. The second and third floors were for those serving time. Minors awaiting trial were confined to a wing on the second floor containing six cells. An additional wing contained six cells for female prisoners. A third wing possessed three cells used exclusively for civil prisoners, as well as a hospital room.


The cages contained only one bathtub apiece, which drew a great deal of criticism from state prison inspectors. They recommended that the county install several shower baths in each cage, in addition to a fumigating plant on the premises. Inspectors claim, "The management experiences much trouble in keeping the jail free from vermin, because there is no means of fumigating the clothes of the prisoners. "


The attached sheriff's residence, found on the west side of the jail, was a handsome, two-and-a-half story, Victorian-style house with a spiral in front.


An exercise yard for the prisoners remained a lacking feature of the jail. After an inspection in 1904, Secretary McLaughlin from the New York State Prison Commission recommended that the old jail be torn down using convict labor. Portions of two of the walls could remain being used to enclose the jail yard.


The Niagara County Board of Supervisors disagreed with the recommendation. The following year, the Buffalo Courier of August 6, 1905, ran an article about the old jail. It was titled "Ancient Lockup Disease Breeder." In the article, the Courier pointed out how several residents who lived in the sheriff's residence (next to the old jail) had been seriously ill or died. The article went on to describe how both parents of Sheriff D. Gurney Spalding, Sheriff John F. Kenney's wife and Sheriff John Reardon's wife had all died in the house after lengthy illnesses. At that time Sheriff Reardon himself was also very seriously ill. Several years before, Supervisor Peter McParlin sponsored a resolution to tear down the contaminated, abandoned building. The economy-minded supervisors failed to accept the resolution.


Mr. McParlin explained, "The old jail which has been standing over a half century, and which is not put to any use, is in a most unsanitary condition. It is damp and filled with the evil odors of years, having harbored criminals of the lowest types decade after decade (2) "


Not until 1908 would approval be given to partially demolish the old jail. The partitions, floors and roof were removed with the walls left standing, the enclosure to be used as a jail yard. Two years later, these walls were torn down and the stone used to build a smaller yard with higher walls. In a typical move by the Board of Supervisors, rather than use free labor by the prisoners, they hired a contractor for $100 to tear down the old jail and remove the stone. The county then had to buy the stone back from the contractor for it to be used to construct the exercise yard.


This jail realized two major expansions. The first came in 1915 when Phelps Architect expanded the facility. A second expansion in 1926 brought an additional fifty-four cells. The enlargement provided enough space to meet needs for the next thirty years.


In 1957, a tunnel from the jail to the courthouse was constructed at a cost of $125,000. However, the tunnel would be closed down a short time later after it was determined to be unsafe. Additional reinforcement permitted the reopening of the tunnel. Ironically, by that time the jail had been tom down.


In 1955, due to strict segregation laws, it became apparent to Sheriff Arthur Muisiner and the Niagara County Board of Supervisors that a new jail remained a necessity. Under these new regulations, fourteen of the "right" prisoners could fill the 102-cell jail. According to the State Department of Corrections and several grand juries, a new facility had to be constructed or major improvements made to the existing one.


Sheriff Muisiner favored a site in the City of Lockport. The county Board of Supervisors opted for a 17.8-acre location three miles west of the city on Niagara Street Extension. The county owned the large parcel of land across the road from the former Poor Farm in the Town of Lockport.


The 1961 Jail


The county accepted bids for the new facility in 1959, the total cost estimated at over $1.5 million. Controversy surrounded the allocation of needed monies. A number of lawmakers attempted to break the long-established policy of building a sheriff's residence along with a new jail. After much bickering, approval for the residence narrowly passed.


Construction started on the 172-cell, three-story structure in December of 1959 and on the sheriff's house nine months later. During the excavation for the residence, workers uncovered a grisly find. The crew unearthed the skeletal remains of nine bodies, along with pieces of wood and square-headed nails. According to Niagara County Historian Dorothy Rolling, the remains were most likely those of occupants from the former county poor farm located across the road. The poor farm had a burial ground, but it is believed that the remains were victims of an epidemic, isolated to keep the disease from spreading.


The newly completed facility accepted its first prisoners in 196 1. The bright spacious jail was in great contrast to the sixty-nine year old structure it replaced. In addition, the building provided abundant office space for the rapidly growing sheriff's department. Unfortunately, county officials razed the handsome old jail only a few months later to make room for a new county clerk's building, a structure never actually constructed. The only reminder of the old jail is an enclosed entrance to the underground tunnel. Today, a parking lot covers the area where the first three jails in Niagara County once stood.


The new jail provided ample space for the first twenty years. State Correction Commission regulations placed the true capacity of the jail at 145 to 150 prisoners. A third floor expansion started in 1983, at a cost of $600,000, provided 2,900 square-feet of additional space and increased capacity to 205 prisoners. The space, a dormitory living area for trustees, freed up cells for other inmates. In 1986, Sheriff Francis Giles converted the 3000 square foot sheriff's residence to much needed office space.


This additional space once again became filled to capacity. In 1992, it became necessary for Sheriff Giles to once again receive a variance from the New York State Department of Corrections to exceed the 205-prisoner maximum. This variance became conditional on Niagara County's assurance of additional funding for an expansion to the facility.


In July 1993, the Niagara County Legislature approved the expansion plans for the jail estimated at more than $24 million to increase the capacity to 460 beds and additional office space. The proposed plans called for the cells to be arraigned in a state of the art, "pod system. " Each pod will be in a triangular configuration, with a corrections officer situated in a stationary control area. This would allow the officer to observe all of the cells and the area where the inmates can congregate.


The design is devised to allow the inmates to spend more time out of their cells than in. Inmates will be locked in their cells primarily at nights and when security requirements mandate it. Rather than bars, these cells will have four walls and resemble a bedroom. A locking, solid core wood door will secure them with a surveillance window on each. A five-inch wide, unbreakable window located higher than eye level, will allow light in but not permit the inmate from communicating with people outside of the institution.


One of the advantages of this design is an estimated savings in manpower costs. By most calculations it will take fewer officers to guard the prisoners confined in this manner. Those inmates considered high risks will be housed in the conventional jail accommodations.


In April, 1994, County Legislatures passed a resolution to allow only union contractors to bid on the project, giving those companies employing Niagara County residents, first priority. The idea behind this requirement was to get the local unions to agree to no work stoppages in return for a guarantee of work. A short time later this resolution was challenged in State Supreme Court and ruled illegal. County lawmakers did not challenge the ruling, and re-bid the work package.


Reprinted with permission from the History of the Niagara County Sheriff's Office by Christopher J. Carlin



The operation and character of any sheriff's department are closely aligned with the physical heart of its day-to-day functions-- the facilities that are maintained. Consequently, an examination of the jail properties used in Niagara County's history should help provide greater insight into the Niagara County Sheriff's Office.