In searching for topics to write about, I have tried to keep up a mix of topics, both obvious and obscure, feel-good and…well, today’s topic. The DC Jail was a blot on Capitol Hill from shortly after it opened in 1875 until it was finally torn down in the late 70s/early 80s. But what really surprised me was how difficult it was to find out the simplest dates of its existence.
I started with trying to determine the actual opening date. There had been attempts since the mid 1850s to build a new jail, as the old one, the so-called “Blue Jug” had been fouling up Judiciary Square since it opened in 1838, and actually keeping down development in that area of the city. Nonetheless, it had taken until 1875 for the new jail, at 19th and B Streets SE, to open. In spite of being what everyone hoped would be a great step forward in the incarceration of criminals in the District, its opening was announced in exactly two sentences printed in the Evening Star on December 8, 1875:
THE NEW JAIL: Gen. Crocker, the warden of the jail, has commence the transfer of prisoners from the old jail to the new prison, and probably by Saturday evening the “blue jug” will be vacated and all its inmates housed in the new jail. There are at present about two hundred prisoners in the jail.
Almost immediately, however, things started going downhill, and in 1894, the Washington Bee reported that “The United States jail is overcrowded.” Some relief was had when the Lorton complex was built at the beginning of the 20th Century, and in 1926 an addition was added, doubling the number of wings on the jail, but the steady drumbeat of bad news emanating from that corner of the Hill continued through the 20th Century.
Finally in 1975, ground was broken for a new jail, just south of the old one. It opened a year later, though even as it opened, it was too small for all the inmates housed in DC jails. Because of this, the old jail remained in operation for a few more years, though there was no articles detailing its eventual closing and razing. The best I could determine was that by 1983, the jail was no more.
In some small way, however, the jail remains today. The quarry that had produced the stone to build the jail back in the 1870s was the same that had been responsible for the stones that were used for the Smithsonian castle. The Smithsonian salvaged some of the old stones, and has used them to repair the Castle, as well as to build the Renwick Gate, which marks the entry to the Castle from Independence Avenue.