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Monday, August 10, 2009

The Tombs

I've never been in prison. I never want to be in prison. And I certainly don't want to be in a New York City prison called the Tombs.
I visited the Tombs on Sunday at midday. Why I would do such a thing is a different story: I was in the neighborhood.

No one looked happy at the detention complex, and there is no way to give this place a happy spin. I spoke to several corrections officers - all polite - but I could sense an air of incredulousness of why I would be there on Sunday, taking photos and asking questions. Virtually every New Yorker has heard of the Tombs, but why would anyone really need to know exactly where or want to visit?  I had never seen the buildings and was curious. So after numerous inquiries (and incorrect directions), I finally arrived at 125 White Street, the home of New York City's Manhattan Detention Complex, aka The Tombs.

Like many New Yorkers, I assumed that the colloquial name was given perhaps because the jail facilities are underground or some other grim reality. This is, in fact, not the case. The complex was nicknamed the Tombs after its first structure, built in 1838, designed by John Haviland and based on an Egyptian mausoleum. This complex occupied a full city block and was called the New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention.

The Tombs has gone through several incarnations: the original from 1838 was replaced with a new building in 1902 and connected to the neighboring Criminal Courts Building by the Bridge of Sighs. That building was replaced in 1941, and in 1974, due to health and security problems, part of the building was taken down and replaced with a new structure. The current complex consists of two buildings connected by a pedestrian bridge: the North Tower from 1990 with 500 beds (seen in the photo) and the South Tower which incorporates part of the original 1941 building.

The various warnings to visitors posted on the entrances made clear the harsh realities and no-nonsense atmosphere inside:

And any other weapon capable of causing injury and/or
otherwise endangering the safety of the institution

Other prohibitions include chewing gum, electronic devices, camera, mirrors, aluminum foil, pencil sharpeners, glass, and mace. I got the message, loud and clear.

Many believed, as I did, that this is strictly a detention center, housing those arrested until arraignment. However, I was told that many are here for months or years and that this complex operates as a prison.
My advice to residents and visitors: stay on the outside...

Note: As one might expect, services for those apprehended were next door on Baxter Street. I found it interesting that sandwiched between three bail bondsmen and a law office was a whiskey tavern. See photos here.


Anonymous said...

I realize that housing prisoner's in ancient buildings is not a desirable situation for anyone involved.

But, the original Tombs building looked like someone had considered making the exterior something you might want to at least look at. However, the current incarnation, from a visual standpoint, probably tells a better story about what goes on inside.

Hope to never visit the deep, recesses of this brutal looking bunker.

Brian Dubé said...

Designslinger - Yes the original looked quite grand and the 1902 version also was quite nice. The current design of the North Towere certainly is foreboding.

Thérèse said...

I like your unusual posts...
If you ever go to Folsom,Ca - visit the Folsom Prison, you will have a different experience but I could not take pictures either.

• Eliane • said...

Yes, it makes sense that people would need a strong drink to work in that area.

mirae said...

Hi Brian
Wonderful photo.thanks.It seems so oppressive well it is oppressive.

So so sad isn't it that there isn't another solution.

anyway you have a bright day.
cheers from Canada.

Jodi said...

agreed about the older versions. I heard it was even refered to as a castle at one point. But I think the pic in front of david jakob is great with the town car in front.

Anonymous said...

Which makes me wonder...can people visit Rikers Island? I've actually heard of Rikers a lot more than the Tombs but have never seen photos, even of the outside.


Brian Dubé said...

Anon - I have been intrigued by Rikers myself for some time. It appears it is off limits except to those visiting prisoners. And I don't thing cameras are allowed.

Anonymous said...

Have you written any narrative on the inside of the block...did you get to see any cells etc...What's it like? I'm researching for a book.

Good Article!!