'If These Walls Could Talk': Demise of the 1st Precinct's Old Prisoner Cells

One of 16 former prisoner holding cells at the 1st Precinct in Tribeca, this one on the second floor. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 12, 2016

Even the most passionate preservationist would be less than wistful over the loss of this bit of Tribeca history.

The original holding cells that for nearly 80 years caged suspects in today’s 1st Precinct station house, formerly the 4th Precinct built in 1912, are ending their long, grim presence at 16 Ericsson Pl.

The untold tonnage of all 16 of them are being sawed apart and taken away: the three-eighth-inch thick plate steel walls and 640-pound iron doors; the tiny sinks, wooden-slab beds and exposed toilets. Each five-by-seven-foot chamber of confinement will soon be gone, making room for new offices as part of a million-dollar renovation of the building, according to the precinct’s commanding officer, Capt. Mark Iocco.

“I’m sure if the walls could talk, they’d have some stories to tell,” said Det. Rick Lee, a community affairs officer assigned to the precinct since 1992. He gave the Trib a tour of the cells, located on the building's first and second floors, a few days before demolition began on June 8. Since around 1990, the cells have been used only for storing old files, vouchered prisoner belongings and confiscated goods. They were replaced by two nearby holding cells on the first floor, large enough for multiple detainees.

On each of the two floors were two blocks of four cells. Each block was itself locked away behind a forbidding steel door, with a barred window that also could be shuttered closed and padlocked. “This was no joke,” said Lee, knocking on the hard steel of one of those doors. “If you were here, you weren’t going anywhere.”

Police historian Thomas A. Reppetto, author of the book, “NYPD: A City and Its Police,” said cops had a chilling name for those cells. “They’d say, ‘Put him in the Bastille!'”

“Generally,” Reppetto added with obvious understatement, “a cell was not a good place to be.”

The length of time spent behind station bars varied by era. Reppetto said that some “looser” police procedures from the 19th century likely carried over into the early 20th century, when prisoners could be held in the station house for several days before seeing a judge.

“Sometimes the police would hold the person at the police station and they wouldn’t book him,” Reppetto said. “So the lawyer would go to a judge and get a writ of habeas corpus and the judge would say, ‘Book him or release him.’”

Electronic communications and the advent of Central Booking at 100 Centre Street has shortened the stay, Lee said. Confinement can last less than two hours while cops prepare paperwork on the suspect before taking him to 100 Centre Street, where—in another cell—he will await arraignment.

But before the courts began operating around the clock in the 1970s, late-night arrestees spent the night in one of those cells. “If you didn’t make a collar in time to get to arraignment then you were going to store the prisoner somewhere,” said Joe Fontana, a former Scooter Task Force cop and later community affairs officer assigned to the 1st Precinct from 1973 until his retirement in 1989. “We used those cells as a place to hold the prisoners until the following morning.”

These days, said Lee, “The only way someone would stay here longer than a couple of hours is if the system crashes. Which happens from time to time.” (Suspects brought in for questioning by detectives may stay longer in a holding cell in the third-floor detective squad room.)

Now the only men to be found around those old cells are demolition workers, their ear-splitting, sparks-spewing circular saws battling steel bars more than an inch thick. After just four days, said a worker, they had gone through nearly 50 blades.

The demolition supervisor, Zaahor Ahmed, said he expected to have completed the second-floor cells in five days. But by day four, he estimated, as much as half the work remained.

“It’s a very hard job,” he said.