New York, New York

Prison on the Park

Central Park is a lot of things: the pastoral center of New York City, a relaxing stroll on a Saturday afternoon, a patch of grass lined with horse manure. It’s also home to a minimum-security prison.

The real estate fronting Central Park is some of the most expensive—and storied—in the world. There’s the Dakota, where John Lennon lived and where he was shot. There’s Museum Mile, with the Met and the Guggenheim, and Hotel Row, home to the Essex House and the Mayflower. At the southwest corner of the park, the AOL-Time Warner Center will soon dominate Columbus Circle—assuming the building’s namesake lasts long enough to see its completion.

Add to the list a non-descript eight-story building that sits toward the eastern edge of Central Park North, not 200 yards from Duke Ellington Circle, overlooking the Harlem Meer and the Charles Dana Discovery Center. With its neat rows of windows and small hedges out front, it might easily pass for just another apartment block—if it weren’t for the security cameras flanking each entryway. In fact, 31-33 West 110th Street isn’t an apartment block at all. It’s a prison—the Lincoln Correctional Facility, a minimum-security center operated by the State Department of Corrections.

Few people, even neighbors, have any idea that a prison sits on Central Park. ‘We’re proud of the fact that we don’t make the facility auspicious,’ said Superintendent Joseph Williams, the man who oversees the 408-bed operation. In the facility’s 26 years, there hasn’t been a single incident or citation. Those who do know of the facility, he said, ‘are very appreciative of the fact that we’re pretty good neighbors.’

If few New Yorkers know about Lincoln, even fewer know its history. The building it occupies was originally intended to be anything but a prison—founded in 1914 as a branch of the Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YWHA), the facility housed newly immigrated Jewish women, usually poor, without families, and in dire need of job and language skills. At the time, Harlem was home to some 175,000 Jews—and was, according to the New York Times, ‘the third largest Jewish settlement in the world, after the Lower East Side and Warsaw.’

Jeffrey Gurock, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and the author of When Harlem Was Jewish: 1870—1930, said the area that is now south-central Harlem was, at the turn of the century, the area of town where the majority of successful Jews resettled after quitting the Lower East Side. In turn, he said, many families—the Sulzbergers, the Schiffs—funded services like the YWHA.

Though the YWHA sold the building in 1942, there are still clues to its former life visible throughout the building according to Steven Siegel, library director at the 92nd Street Y’s Bronfman Center. While many of the large rooms have been sectioned off, Siegel said there are a number of ‘architectural remnants of the original interior design. The superintendent’s office was the library.’

The outside of the building, aside from the windows, has been left untouched, and observant passersby will note at its pronounced cornice and heraldic detailing in between floors. Look high enough, though, and you’ll see the terrace, fenced not only on the sides but on the top as well, the only sure sign that its current residents might not fully appreciate being housed in an overlooked bit of New York history.

By the late 1930s many of Harlem’s Jews had moved into the Upper East and West Sides, and a decline in Jewish immigrants meant the YWHA’s mission was coming to an end. Closure came in the form of a proposal from the Young Men’s Hebrew Association facility at 92nd Street and Lexington—now the 92nd Street Y—to merge operations and move into the latter’s facilities.

With the war just around the corner, the YWHA found an eager buyer in the U.S. Army, which needed a rest-and-relaxation center convenient to Harlem for its black soldiers; and the YWHA facility, with its several floors of dormitory space and communal dining facilities, made a perfect match. ‘The women were only too happy to get paid to leave,’ notes Siegel.

After the war, the building stood dormant for two years before being bought by the leadership of the New Lincoln School, an experimental school founded in 1917 by the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board and operated under Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. The school was originally located on the Upper West Side, but when the college shut down the school in 1946, parents and teachers banded together to keep it going, and in 1948 the school was reopened at the Central Park North facility.

That same year the two-year-old Northside Testing and Consultation Center began operating on the sixth floor of the building. Today located on Duke Ellington Circle and known as the Northside Center for Child Development, the program was the brainchild of Dr. Kenneth Clark, a professor of psychology at City College, and his wife, Dr. Mamie Phipps-Clark. Clark used findings from the center to develop his theories on the negative psychological effects of segregated schooling, which in turn became key evidence in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.

The New Lincoln School shut its doors in 1971, and the Northside Center stayed on for just another year before moving down the street. The building again stood empty, until the State Department of Corrections bought it in 1974 for $550,000 and in 1976 opened the Lincoln Correctional Facility.

According to Superintendent Williams, Lincoln began as a sort of halfway stop for prisoners with less than two years until parole, but in 1991 it was expanded into a work-release center. One of three such facilities in Manhattan (there’s another in Harlem and one on West 20th Street) and eight in the state, Lincoln houses on average 275 inmates, though many of those are only onsite a few days a week; the rest of the time they are on furlough, working and living with friends or relatives. Some don’t live at the facility at all; Williams calls them ‘day reporters’ or ‘7-0ers.’ They ‘report once or twice a week for a urine test, to make sure they’re not doing drugs, and to maybe speak with a counselor.’

While Lincoln has a 408-person capacity, today its average population runs closer to 275, thanks to a 1996 law that made violent offenders ineligible for work release. Drug convictions, Williams said, were responsible for the bulk of the inmates. ‘All in all we’ve got a pretty low profile, and a very good program. There’s a 95-percent release rate for parole.’

The five percent who don’t make parole, Williams said, usually come from the prisoners who comprise the rest of Lincoln’s population: white-collar criminals. It’s more than a little ironic that quite a few of them have probably spent time in some of Central Park’s tonier and better-known addresses. In any case, they’ve gotten to know Lincoln pretty well. ‘A few of the high-profile white-collar criminals have been here over six years,’ Williams noted with a chuckle.


A reader’s letter, Oct. 27, 2003

Thank you for the entertaining article but there are two small errors in your report: New Lincoln School did not close in 1971. In fact it was still operating in 1974 when I graduated along with 49 other high-school seniors. I believe that the next generation of 50-or-so seniors also graduated from New Lincoln at 31-33 West 110th Street in 1975.
As I’m sure you can imagine, we made adolescent jokes comparing our school to the coming prison. And while we may have felt imprisoned at times, we were far from incarcerated from 1971-1974/5. The building was not empty. There were about 200-250 students inside until at least 1975.
Sincerely yours,
Linda Lauro-Lazin

TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen