Jails Are Designed to Keep Inmates Hidden

Jails Are Designed to Keep Inmates Hidden

Jails Are Designed to Keep Inmates Hidden

A photographic record of the Tombs, one of New York City’s most notorious detention complexes.

Facebook
Twitter
Email
Flipboard
Pocket

In New York, a city famous for its historic bridges, one in lower Manhattan escapes notice: a “Bridge of Sighs” at the Manhattan Detention Complex.

Known locally as “the Tombs,” the complex houses male detainees before they face trial. It stands just south of Canal Street, abutted by Columbus Park and surrounded by a cluster of court houses and bail bond shops. The “Tombs” sobriquet predates the current facility, stretching back to an earlier version of the jail: an Egyptian Revival–style building that stood across the street from 1838 to 1902. Resembling an ancient tomb, it was immediately infamous. When Charles Dickens visited in 1842 he concluded with horror, “Such indecent and disgusting dungeons as these cells, would bring disgrace upon the most despotic empire in the world!” Chronically plagued by violence and brutal conditions, the Tombs has been demolished and rebuilt or remodeled four times around its original site.

Every version of the Tombs has had a bridge. They’ve served a variety of functions, most infamously to deliver prisoners on death row from their cells to the gallows in the 19th century. Today, a pedestrian bridge spans White Street, joining the Manhattan Detention Complex’s North and South towers. From the street, one can see people crossing the bridge behind thick glass.

Like the Bureau of Prisons, the NYC Department of Correction goes to great lengths to keep inmates out of sight and mind, particularly during the pandemic, when facilities have been under varying degrees of lockdown. The skybridge is an exception, allowing a fleeting look inside. Figures appear fuzzy and distorted during the day, but when the bridge is illuminated at night, the shadowy forms become clearer. The glass is too distorting to make out details or facial expressions; instead, gaits, gestures and patches of color come into focus. Inmates in tan jumpsuits are escorted across the bridge at half speed, strictly spaced and trailed by a guard in blue. Sometimes they run a hand along the glass or stretch to touch the ceiling. Police and Department of Correction Emergency Service Unit officers cross the bridge casually, unhurried. Nurses in white walk with purpose. A custodian pushing a cart streaks by. Masks in white, black, and pale blue are distinguishable as smudges. The rhythm of the bridge becomes predictable and monotonous, broken only when an inmate looks out the window.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It takes a dedicated team to publish timely, deeply researched pieces like this one. For over 150 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and democracy. Today, in a time of media austerity, articles like the one you just read are vital ways to speak truth to power and cover issues that are often overlooked by the mainstream media.

This month, we are calling on those who value us to support our Spring Fundraising Campaign and make the work we do possible. The Nation is not beholden to advertisers or corporate owners—we answer only to you, our readers.

Can you help us reach our $20,000 goal this month? Donate today to ensure we can continue to publish journalism on the most important issues of the day, from climate change and abortion access to the Supreme Court and the peace movement. The Nation can help you make sense of this moment, and much more.

Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy
x