In Castle Williams, which was built in the early 19th century to protect New York Harbour, then used as a prison during the Civil War, following which the US Army improved the facilities by adding insulation, heating, running water, and, eventually, electricity, and used it as a US Army Prison. In 1915, it was made a branch of the Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks, of which the prison facility at Alcatraz in San Francisco was also a branch.
When they weren’t admiring the view to Manhattan and New York Harbour, inmates were listening to music from a Victrola (record player) they had purchased with money they had made taking in laundry, or took typing and steno lessons, offered through the Y.M.C.A., likely taught by female volunteers. And, while in Alcatraz, the prisoners had the backbreaking task of building their own cells out of heavy stones, ”hard labour” at Governors Island meant mowing the lawns. There were those that tried to escape, of course, but it was not an uncommon to see soldiers who had gone AWOL surrender themselves outside of the Battery Maritime Building, hoping to be imprisoned at Castle Williams.
Anyway, “Castle Bill”, as it was lovingly called by its residents, remained a branch of the US Army Disciplinary Barracks until Governors Island’s closure as an Army base in 1966. The Coast Guard did not maintain a prison in Castle Williams but readapted it for their own needs by using it as a community center featuring arts and crafts classrooms, a ballet studio, meeting rooms for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, a daycare room, and a teen club.
And when, in 1996 all Military and Coast Guard operations seized, the enlisted men, women and their families that lived on the island year-round departed, living behind them a small town. Since then, the facilities – the island itself, are slowly being converted into a public park.
It still has the best views to Manhattan and New York Harbour.
July 7th, 2019