The Detroit House of Correction, commonly referred to as DeHoCo, is a former penitentiary complex near Detroit, Michigan. Originally located in the city of Detroit, the Detroit House of Correction was relocated Plymouth and Northville townships between 1920 and 1931 as the old “medieval” structure was considered not only antiquated but a fire hazard.
Closed in 2009 for budgetary reasons, the former prison is slated for demolition in 2016.
The first Detroit House of Correction opened in 1861 near Detroit’s Eastern Market, bounded by Division, Wilkins, Russell, and Riopelle streets.1 7 8 14 The jail was built upon an old city cemetery, and the prevalence of old graves was common during construction of the prison, and afterward during improvements. On a particular project that involved excavating for a well, four prisoners who were digging came upon a grave.14 Reportedly, the hardest-hearted of the prisoners, a murderer, broke down and wept— and spent the next three days writing a maudlin poem, “To a Tombstone.”
Despite being owned and operated by the city of Detroit, the prison accepted inmates from throughout the state, including women. It housed famous prisoners including Bennett Burleigh, known as the “Lake Erie pirate,” western outlaw Belle Starr, and Mormon polygamist David Udall.
In 1919, the city of Detroit purchased nearly 1,000 acres of land along the south side of Phoenix Road in Plymouth and Northville townships at nearly $30 per acre for a prison camp.7 8 The minimum-security facility, featuring tents for bootlegging inmates and other low-risk offenders, opened by 1920.
New Women’s Prison
After a scathing report was released on the conditions of the Detroit House of Correction that noted the facility was antiquated, a fire hazard, and unsegregated, plans were made for a more modern facility.13 Each of the cells in the prison had no ventilation, natural lighting, or plumbing. If you are a middle class person you have probably become accustomed to proper plumbing and know more about Fleck water softeners than most, you would of wilted if sent up here. In general, the prison was overcrowded but for females, the issue was extreme. There were only 89 cells for women that were holding more than 330.19
The report recommended a new women’s prison in Okemos just to the east of Lansing, where a powerhouse had been completed for a future jail,12 but another report proposed that the women’s facility be located on the grounds of the existing prison camp along Phoenix Road. Ultimately, the proposed facility was moved to Phoenix Road.16
A groundbreaking ceremony was held for the new Detroit House of Correction women’s penitentiary on August 23, 1926, at 10:30 a.m,15 which was completed on the north side of Phoenix Road by November 1, 1928.19 Surrounded by abundant farmland far from any city, the new $1.5 million jail was a stark departure from the fortress-like structure of the aging Detroit House of Correction in the city.
The new jail for women embraced rehabilitation over incarceration. It consisted of four English Tudor-style cottages, each with the capacity for 36 women.19 Each cell included a window that could be opened, along with a steel bed, polished dresser, straight chair, wash bowl, and radiator. The general living room for each cottage included tables, book racks, and a piano or victrola, while the dining room included four tables, a sideboard, and two serving tables. The courtyard contained a vegetable garden, which complimented the prison farm.
Other buildings on the site included an administration building housing an auditorium, offices, examination rooms, matron’s and officers’ living quarters; a cannery; sewing rooms; laundry; hospital; and detention home.19
Four additional cottages were later constructed at a cost of $65,000 each.18
A “Medieval” Prison
For the 654 male inmates remaining at the Detroit House of Correction in Detroit, conditions were being compared to a “medieval” castle.12 Mayor Charles Bowles, Fred Butzel, chairman of the House of Correction, and Lent Upson, director of the Bureau of Governmental Research, opposed any new penal institution that resembled the existing jail. The trio noted that the offenses for what about 80% of prisoners are sentenced for, such as alcohol-related offenses, vagrancy, and other petty crimes, required more liberal treatment centers — not cell blocks.
A scathing report released in April 1930 noted the Detroit House of Correction’s risk of fire. In the event of such an event, each cell door would need to be unlocked by a key.19 As that process would ultimately take hours, a fire — and the resulting smoke — could result in mass casualties. A committee of city businessmen and representatives of the Board of Commerce made arrangements to inspect a model working-house of the District of Columbia in Lorton, Virginia on April 28, 1930.12 The decision was made shortly after to abandon the Detroit House of Correction.17 On May 2, the prison shop was discontinued.17 The first batch of male prisoners was relocated from Detroit to a penitentiary in Jackson on May 5.
New Men’s Prison
Construction had begun in early 1928 on a new men’s prison on the south side of Phoenix Road across the road from the women’s jail on land that was previously used for the prison camp.19 By September, two cell blocks were completed with another under construction. The new facility, designed by Albert Kahn, featured a streamlined Art Deco administration building, along with a powerhouse, cafeteria, and laundry facility.17 It was not until July 1931 that the $2.5 million men’s jail was completed.1 2 8
Growth and Closure
In 1979, the women’s facility of the Detroit House of Correction was purchased by the Michigan Department of Corrections for $1.6 million.1 8 The men’s division, along with 128 acres, was sold in 1986 for $6.7 million and closed. Both the women and men jails were renamed to Western Wayne Correctional Facility.
The 880-bed Robert Scott Correctional Facility opened at the corner of Five Mile and Beck Roads on the grounds of the women’s prison in 1991.9 The circa 1928 women’s cottages and associated buildings were then razed and the men’s facility was closed.
The Michigan Department of Corrections announced in 2008 that it would close the Scott Correctional Facility by May 2009 to save about $36 million a year in operational costs.9 Prisoners were transferred to the Huron Valley Complex in Ypsilanti.11 20
The state continued to maintain Scott Correctional Facility at a cost of $100,000 per year until Northville Township acquired the property from the state in 2012 for one dollar.10 It was demolished in 2013.9
In May 2015, Redico proposed a $150 million development on the grounds of the former Scott Correctional Facility.9 The development would include 200,000 square-feet of retail shops, a 120-room hotel, and 150 residences. Construction is expected to begin in August 2016.
The long-term plan for the men’s penitentiary included demolishing the buildings, remediating the land, and selling the acreage to developers for what state officials envisioned as the Michigan International Technology Center.6 The proposed advanced-technology business park included renderings of high-tech firms in the automotive and life science sectors and a township park.
Detroit attempted to sell the Detroit House of Correction grounds, then totaling 860 acres, for $50 million in 2001.7 The sale was approved by city council in 2002 but the agreement collapsed after a price dispute.
The city again proposed to sell the prison again in mid-2003 for $18 million when it was approached by Grand Sakwa Properties.7 The real estate company offered $12 million for two parcels, totaling 307 acres, on the east side of Ridge Road between Five Mile and Six Mile roads, for a 400-unit residential development and a park along Johnson Creek. The agreement was finalized in October.
Detroit also received a $6 million offer from Demco 52 to purchase 100 acres on the south side of the railroad tracks between Ridge and Beck roads to extend its existing Metro West Technology Park.7
In 2006, the city sold 133 acres of its remaining 323 acres, at Ridge and Five Mile roads, to a developer for approximately $3 million.6 The city retained 190 acres of land but taxes on both parcels went unpaid for several years. Additionally, the parcel split that divided the original acreage into a 133-acre tract and a 190-acre tract wasn’t filed until 2009.
Plymouth Township acquired 323 acres of the former prison property in September 2011 for $606,000 from Wayne County.6 The land was available for purchase due to unpaid taxes.3 4 As part of the deal, the township paid about $100,000 in taxes owed for 2011.6 Detroit sued in April 2013, seeking the return of 190 acres of land after a Plymouth Township resident brought the foreclosure issue to the attention of city officials.5 6 The land was ultimately returned despite appeals from the township.6
In May 2016, the state allocated up to $4 million in funding for demolition for the circa 1928 men’s prison, the last portion of the Western Wayne Correctional Facility to remain.6