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Architectural Flaws of the Tombs Prison

by David Marin Quiros


Image: The Tombs: 1926[1]

In 1902, Manhattan welcomed their back prisoners to a newly designed city prison, colloquially called “The Tombs.” The previous structure was torn down after decades of poor conditions as seen by its lack of ventilation and massive overcrowding. Its former Egyptian revival style mimicked a mausoleum,[2] hence where its nickname came from. Its rebirth opted for a Châteauesque design, characterized by its elaborate towers, steeply pitched roofs, and a heavy reliance on ornamentation.[3] Yet despite its best attempts, it could not shake off its name, which it still holds after two subsequent remodelings. New York residents were hopeful of the prison’s new design, as it promised to employ the best sanitation and safety technologies of the early 1900s.[4] Despite massive city funding to make this Châteauesque experiment fit into the grandeur of its metropolis, like its predecessor, it had its impressive features stop at its facade, and failed once more to provide a rehabilitative space for the inmates.

This prison in particular, in this specific time, offers a unique study on how institutional architecture at the start of the modern era influenced the carceral system in large American cities. It is important to point out the lack of literature that separates the culture of discipline within city prisons and rural prisons, as well as the lack of literature on the Tombs prison in general. The design of the Tombs prison provides the retrospect to understand, as well as expand upon, Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power as it first emerged in U.S. prisons. Essential to this discussion is how the manipulation of space leads to the creation of norms and behaviors.[5] Modernity has brought on the ideals that prisons and their structures should be built to reform individuals of their criminal tendencies, in order to produce productive assets for the economy.[6] Architects can design a better prison through a recharacterization of the institution, such as focusing on elements of daylight and air quality.[7] This modernist shift acknowledges inmates as humans rather than as stains on an otherwise productive society.[8] Without the careful articulation of an environment such as a prison, it may not only fail to achieve the standards of the modern era but be a site of physical and mental torment.

Rikers Island might be the scariest jail in America, and certainly New York, though less prominent in the public imagination is the violent legacy the Tombs prison has itself. Even today, with so much focus on reforming Rikers, many former Tombs prisoners have said they hope the city does not forget the prison that “has been too violent for too long.”[9] Despite the shameful lack of statistics, news articles have made it clear that the early years of the Tombs saw frequent executions.[10] Though this tradition of death somehow adopts a grimmer tone, as it has been said that suicides in the facility to have happened weekly.[11]

One particular architectural aspect of the prison, known to the prisoners as the “Bridge of Sighs,” literally connects the inevitability of death to the penal system. This name came from a similar structure found in Venice, where condemned prisoners would walk across the bridge to view Venice for the final time and sigh before being incarcerated or executed. In the city of New York, the bridge connects the Tombs with the Manhattan criminal court,[12] symbolizing expediency, and the inevitability of conviction. This walk of shame happens hundreds of times a day, and each time the emotional response continues to be one of grief and hopelessness.[13] Under these pretenses, the shameful amount of death in this institution begin to make sense.

While it is easy to be critical of a prison built over a hundred years ago, the criticism of the institution has been ongoing since the beginning. There are three systematic elements of the prison frequently cited to contribute to its failure. These three in particular are notable due to their relationship to the physical structure of the prison. The first of these is the abysmal conditions of the prison. Despite prisoners being conscious of these realities, it wasn’t made obvious to the public until an article came out in 1930, saying the prison is collapsing in on itself because of the lack of upkeep, which led to plumbing issues to go unchecked.[14] The overall neglect of the crumbling infrastructure reflected the dehumanized perception of the inmates, where their inhumane environment were acceptable until those issues affected the general health of the public.

The two issues which follows go in hand with each other. The first is the overcrowding of the prison, as the facility was constantly filled passed capacity.[15] While this begs to ask questions about the carceral system as a whole, the over taxing of the structure makes one wonder if the effectiveness of the space was being compromised. Furthermore, the conscious act of ignoring of the architectural limit of the structure speaks to carceral system’s indifference to its own effectiveness. What follows the over incarceration is the generalization of the prisoners themselves. This is to say how inmates, regardless of their sentence time, crime, mental health, or age, were contained together in heterogenous spaces.[16] Young, petty offenders are thus forced to fraternize with hardened recidivists, who might negatively influence any potential reformation the former could have found. The lack of defined spaces makes clear that upon designing the structure, there was no consideration to different needs of individual inmates, at once simplifying them, and also creating the abstraction that is the term “deviant.”

In the pursuit of an effective prison, if we are bold enough to assume there is such a thing, the Tombs prison was not where one could find it. It fails contemporary standards and fails the standards of modernism. Without a thoughtful architectural skeleton, one which might prioritize humanity over costs, security, and expediency, the institution was destined to be unsuccessful. Nonetheless, this prison, throughout all its incarnations, deserves to be looked at with much more depth and scrutiny. Its evolution from the premodern to the contemporary age paints the progression of the carceral state and could allow us to deconstruct the penal system as a way to reform it for the future.

[1] “The Tombs” Print Collection. 8×10. NYC Municipal Archives. Jails Associated Journal. Accessed August 6, 2020 http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/RECORDSPHOTOUNITARC~15~15~453441~108326:mac_1926?qvq=q:mac_1926&mi=0&trs=1

[2] “Tombs Prison is Doomed,” New York Times, March 7, 1897, 18.

[3] “Châteauesque Style 1860 – 1910,” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, (August 26, 2015) http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/architecture/styles/chateauesque.html

[4] “Tombs Prison is Doomed,”

[5] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ( New York: Vintage Books, 1995) 153-154

[6] Foucault, 25.

[7] Leslie Fairweather and Seán McConville, Prison architecture : policy, design, and experience, (Boston : Architectural Press, 2000.) 26

[8] Fairweather and McConville, 62.

[9] John Surico, “The Legacy of Violence at the Manhattan Jail Known as the ‘Tombs’,” Vice, (July 2015) https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/yvx3pv/tales-from-the-tombs-the-legacy-of-violence-at-the-manhattan-detention-complex-719.

[10] Bertram Reinitz, “The Old Tombs Prison Under Critisism Again,” New York Times, June 30, 1929, 156.

[11] Surico “The Legacy of Violence”

[12] “A Tale of The Tombs,” Correction History, http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/nycdoc/html/histry3a.html#tale.

[13]John Surico, “What I Saw While Spending 16 Hours In Manhattan Criminal Court,” Vice, (May 2015) https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/dp5zjz/i-spent-16-hours-in-manhattan-criminal-court-506.

[14] “Fear Tombs Prison Might Collapse,” New York Times, January 18, 1930, 9.

[15] Reinitz “The Old Tombs”

[16] “Fear”

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