Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Welfare Island

Welfare Island Sewing Room (1929)
Welfare Island

Location: A narrow island in the East River  between the island of Manhattan to the west and the borough of Queens to the east. It runs from Manhattan's East 46th to East 85th streets, New York, New York, USA. It is now known as Roosevelt Island, and is largely made up of high-rise multiple-dwelling residential buildings.

Founded: 1921

Closed: 1973

Welfare Island was radically different from the other places featured here at Lost Womyn's Space. No woman ever chose to be there. By the accounts of the inmates who were shipped to "the island," it was truly a wretched place, so we don't visit Welfare Island with any sense of nostalgia. Nevertheless, a stint at Welfare Island was the fate of many a poor woman who got convicted of "morals charges" or other similar "crimes" against the public order (e.g. intoxication, disorderly conduct, vagrancy, "violating Public Health law," etc.). Until March 1932, women would be admitted to the Welfare Island Hospital and Clearing House for Women, and after that date until 1973, to the Women's House of Detention. So for better or for worse, Welfare Island altered the lives of several generations of women, especially those who were labeled "crazed, contagious, or criminal."

Mae West was sentenced to Welfare Island for 10 days in 1927, after her play, "Sex," was raided on Broadway and she was found guilty of promoting "obscenity" and "corrupting the morals of youth." (Mae eventually got two days knocked off her sentence for good behavior.) Here's how Mae herself described her experience at Welfare Island, starting at the Queenborough Bridge at 59th Street:

In the center of that bridge there is a huge elevator that lowers automobiles--including the Little Black Wagon--down to the island.

Stepping out of the land-gondola on wheels, I saw this marvelous, gorgeous stone structure most attractively decorated with big sheet-iron doors and plenty of bar-work. The doors opened and I made my grand entrance. 

Upon entering the reception-room, I saw several matrons. Number One took my purse, my valuables, and my pedigree. 

I was met by a second matron who said, "Strip!"

I said, "What? I thought this was a respectable place."

She smiled and said, "I am sorry, Miss West, but I will have to divest you of all your civilian attire."

And there and then she took everything but my enviable reputation....

 It almost goes without saying that Mae thoroughly disliked the "blue-and-white-checked" uniform that was assigned to her, as well as the "very coarse" underwear. And "then came the cotton stockings and the flat slippers that were too large." Mae prevailed upon one of the matrons who was "prowling around," and asked if she might speak to the warden.

Given that she was something of a celebrity inmate, her request was granted. A meeting was arranged, and though she found the warden to be "a very distinguished-looking gentleman," Mae could not be swayed from her poor opinion of the prison attire. In addition, her request for a transfer back to the jail at the Jefferson Market Court was denied.

Mae was assigned the task of dusting the warden's library, and to her surprise, lunch was spent with just six other women prisoners who were domestic workers in the warden's home. (Apparently it was considered a "great honor" to dust, clean, and cook on the warden's behalf.) Three of the women were "colored" and three were "white." Maria, the Puerto Rican cook, was at Welfare Island for some reason related to horse racing and money. Mary, the "colored girl" who did the ironing, was quiet and a "drug addict." Adele, a "dainty white girl with auburn hair," had formerly shoplifted fur coats. She was now a waitress in the warden's home. (Mae cross-examined Adele quite extensively, in order to glean her "professional techniques.") And then there was Lulu, " the third of the colored women:"  

She was conservative in her statements about herself, although it was whispered that Lulu was a "stick-up" woman. However, I liked Lulu very much, for it requires a lot of nerve to "stick up" a man. 

Of course, there are a lot of  nicer ways of taking everything a man's got--although I must admit Lulu's way was a quicker way of getting results.  

On her second day at "the island," the matron asked Mae to visit the sick wards, as the patients were anxious to see her. At first, Mae "disliked the idea of being on exhibition," but she eventually came around.

I was escorted to the sick-wards by two matrons and the warden. On the way we passed the tiers of cells in the main prison.

Suddently there was a great uproar. Some one had passed the word along that I was coming through. Faces appeared at the barred doors and they shouted wildly in greeting.

"Here comes Mae!" they yelled, and "How do you like the dress, Mae? How do you like the shoes?"

The warden was forced to smile at the hubbub my appearance had caused. He said:

"Can you imagine what it would be like if I had put you over here? The place would be a madhouse instead of a workhouse!"

I saw, then, that the warden, aside from his kindness in assigning me to his home, had the discipline of his prison in mind. It was all very amusing.

After visiting the venereal ward, where "the girls were quite gay and didn't look a bit ill," Mae moved on to the narcotics ward, where "there was every sort of woman, from debutantes down to street-women. Many give themselves up willingly to take the cure."   

Mae was shocked to learn that many women on probation had been sent back to Welfare Island merely because they had been "seen" with "someone of a bad character." Too many of these women had little choice in the matter, though, because when they were freed, they had "nothing more than carfare." So it was all too easy to slide back into the "old life:"

One girl, of twenty, had been in jail five times for prostitution. Asked why she did not get a job when she was free, she said she had looked for jobs and no one would take her because of her shabby appearance. Thus she was forced to tramp the streets until hunger drove her to seek food by any means.

The last time, a man had accosted her while she stood in the street, and offered to buy her food. She went with him. After he had bought her dinner, he took her down to a police station. He was a detective.

These girls are willing to work, but how can they when the law is always ready to pounce upon them and send them back to the Workhouse?

Another famous inmate at Welfare Island was a very young Billie Holiday, who was committed there when she was just 15 years of age on a trumped-up prostitution charge. This was around 1930. As she explained in Lady Sings the Blues (1956), women around Harlem "who worked as maids, cleaned office buildings, were picked up on the street on their way home from work and charged with prostitution. If they could pay, they got off. If they couldn't they went to court, where it was the word of some dirty grafting cop against theirs." 

When Billie got to court, the Magistrate at the Jefferson Market Court claimed there was a health report showing that Billie was "sick" (i.e. had syphillis), though Billie said she had never been tested. So the Magistrate sent her to a hospital in Brooklyn, and from there, Billie was sent to Welfare Island for four months after she got into a fight with a "big dike" at the hospital and pushed her down the stairs.

That place was filthy. Fifty girls were packed together in one awful ward, and some of them with t.b. We got the kind of garbage to eat you wouldn't feed your dog. Every once in a while we'd all get put to work cleaning up the joint. That meant a bunch of social workers would come trooping through making an inspection. But after they'd leave, the rats would come out again and everything would slide back to filthy-dirty normal.
The rats in that place were bigger than anything I'd seen in Baltimore. And they all seemed like they'd been trained. They'd walk right past without bothering you unless they were hungry. And even if they were hungry they wouldn't bother the girls on the wards, they'd come in the kitchen just like a pet. I worked in the kitchen for a while, and there was one old rat, so beat up most of his fur was worn away, who used to come in regularly to get his chow.

All night I'd lay awake listening to the pleasure boats going by in the East River and wonder if I'd ever get out. Like everybody else, I was just counting the days. I was supposed to get fifteen days off for good behavior, which meant I had to count up to a hundred and five.

Then one day when I had the count down to seventy days to go, something happened that boosted my time back to eighty-five. There were plenty of dikes around that place too. And one of them had been dogging me. This time she made a pass at me, and I made a pass back with my fist. This little scuffle cost me my fifteen days off for good behavior and caused me to get tossed in the cooler.

That place was the end--a cell so tiny there wasn't room to take one step. You had a cot, room to stand up or sit down, and that was it. No lights, it was so dark down there you lost track of night and day and had to give up counting your time. After a while, you didn't even care. They gave you two pieces of bread with saltpeter in it every day and some water. I had to do ten days on that diet, but I used to throw it back in their faces.

After you got out of the cooler you were punished by getting graduated to the laundry. The girls in the laundry used to holler at me, trying to buck me up.

"Stick it out," they'd yell. "Don't throw your food away. Eat it or you'll never make it out alive."

I could hear their voices but I never got to lay eyes on a soul except the matron.

A dike was the cause of getting me in there, and another one was the cause of getting me out alive. This one matron was a chick who liked girls. I had said something to her the first time she came around and she thought I was cute. She used to sneak me a couple of cigarettes when I needed them bad, and I used to  play along with her.

I knew she expected to get to make a pass at me when I got out. She expected me to be nice to her. So I didn't tell her any different. She had her own reasons for being nice to me. But any kind of freakish feelings are better than no feelings at all. If only that judge had been a dike, she might have treated me like a piece of human flesh instead of a piece of evidence. If it hadn't been for this nice dikey matron, I don't know if I would have made it.

But one day they let me out and I graduated to laundry. My last job there was a real break--I got to  cook for the warden and his family. I used to make them crazy dishes I had learned from Mom--things she used to make for rich people, like chicken cacciatore with mushrooms and roast duck. This used to knock him out. When my time was running out, he made me an offer to stay on and cook for him.

"You come to my house and I'll cook for you," I told him. "I'm never coming back here."

My job cooking for the warden made me a big shot in the joint. As a privileged character, I got to sleep in the bed by the window in the ward. Also, it meant I got out on time. They couldn't keep books on the island. Girls that were supposed to do three years sometimes did three or four weeks extra because some bookkeeper goofed. Then one day they'd discover some girl still there who was supposed to be out. They'd ask her what she thought she was doing. "You were supposed to be out weeks ago," they told one girl.

But I got out right on the nose at the end of the four months. It was summer when I went in, without a stitch to my name except my one and only silk dress and my spike-heeled patent-leather shoes. It was winter when they let me out, and when they checked me through the exit I got the dress, but the chick in the check room couldn't find my shoes. I kicked up such a storm I thought they were going to keep me there. I raised so much hell the warden finally had to come down. When he found out what it was all about he said the shoes had to be there someplace. He gave orders for them to find them if they had to search the joint. The dame in the check room found them in a hurry. She handed them over--brand new and just her size.

So I got on that cold windy ferryboat to cross the East River in my spike shoes and my silk dress. But it hung on me like a prison uniform--I had dropped twenty-three pounds on the island.

Photo: Sewing Room, Correction Hospital (Workhouse), Welfare Island, 1929.

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