Past and Present: The Brooklyn Penitentiary

Postcard from 1907, the year the prison was torn down.

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

In 1846, the Kings County Board of Supervisors bought the plot of land bordered by Rogers and Nostrand Avenues, Carroll and Montgomery Streets. This was in what was then called Crow Hill, a desolate section of scrub land in between Flatbush and Bedford. The Dutch had bought the land in the early 1600’s, changing hands several times in the next several hundred years, belonging to members of the Bergen, Lott, Vanderbilt, Lefferts and Cortelyou families, all familiar names to Brooklynites.

The County built a penitentiary and workhouse, surrounded by a high stone fence. The Kings County Penitentiary housed felons, and the workhouse housed those convicted of petty crimes and misdemeanors. They had both male and female prisoners, held in different wings. The workhouse had a shoe factory which employed many of the inmates, both male and female. The male prisoners wore black and white striped prison clothing and were often seen working in chain gangs on the streets of Brooklyn, and were often called “crows”, one explanation for the neighborhood name of Crow Hill.

No prison was a picnic, especially back in the 19th century, but the Kings County Pen was beset with charges of mismanagement, rampant cruelty towards prisoners, and generally horrible conditions for much of its existence. Finally, in 1906, the County sold the prison to the Catholic Church, which sold it to the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits planned a large campus that would include a college, prep school, and grammar school. The old prison was torn down in 1907, and the cornerstone laid for the Brooklyn College and Preparatory School.

The college was dropped in 1913, and the school became the Brooklyn Academy, and later, Brooklyn Preparatory School, a boy’s high school. Eventually the entire site once occupied by the prison became a complex of school buildings and athletic fields. The school graduated some notable alumni over the years, including William Peter Blatty, the author of the Exorcist, former House, Education and Welfare Secretary, Joseph Califano, and college football coach Joe Paterno. The school was a well-respected and academically excellent school until their last class graduated in 1972.

However, the 1960’s proved to be bad years for parochial education, and the Jesuits were forced to consolidate their schools, due to rising costs and falling enrollment. By 1968, they knew the school would have to close. They sold the Brooklyn Prep campus for $2.75 million to New York City, in 1971, for the newly expanding City University System. The school became part of the new Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, in 1973, named after the African-American Civil Rights leader, assassinated in 1963 in Mississippi. Today, the old Brooklyn Prep buildings are a vital part of the now much larger campus. GMAP

Postcard from 1907, the year the prison was torn down.

Photo: Brooklyn Prep School Alumni Association

What's Happening