The word infrastructure usually conjures up images of roads, highways, bridges and mass transit. One thing that Kate Ascher taught me is that the really interesting stuff is what you don’t see. The idea for her captivating book, The Works, came while observing the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. All of a sudden the mechanisms that made New York work were exposed to the surface: steam pipes, sewage systems, telecommunication cables, stormwater management and more. The more she dug, the more interesting it got. Mail used to be sent in underground pneumatic tubes! Do those crosswalk buttons work? Answer: only 25% of the time!

Today’s post is about prisons, something that the average city dweller doesn’t think about. But what is fascinating is that many of New York’s prisons are right in our midst—we walk and drive by them without noticing. Prisons used to be organized along district lines, particularly before the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs. They were attached to or near the courts and were little more than holding cells. These included the famous Tombs (still in use), the Jefferson Market Prison in the West Village (now the landmarked Jefferson Market Library), the Essex Market Prison in the East Village, the Yorkville Prison at 57th  and Lexington, the West Side Prison at 53rd  and 8th  Avenue, the Fordham Prison and the Harlem Prison.

Today, there are 13 prisons in New York City. Find a prison near you!


1. The Tombs

The Tombs-1902-Manhattan Criminal Courts-Centre Street-NYCImage in public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The granite structure of The Tombs shown above was the second to sit on its site built in 1902. The complex was also known as the New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention. The granite was reused from Bridewell Prison next to City Hall. In 1941, the prison was replaced by a 15-story tower across the street, now known as the Manhattan Detention Complex.

A New York-based lawyer describes The Tombs, in its current state, to Untapped Cities “Deep underground, with stale air and bright florescent lights, the cells in the Tombs are dreary, suffocating and sleepless places. During the approximately 24 hours that the accused are held there, they can expect a gross sandwich, shared bathroom with no stall, and 30 cellmates ranging from the dangerous to the innocent in various states of despair.”

View all on one page

4 thoughts on “13 of NYC’s Active Prisons: Rikers Island, The Tombs, Manhattan Correctional Center

  1. I used to walk past the Lincoln Correctional Facility almost every day when I lived in East Harlem. It’s surprisingly inconspicuous – I didn’t even realize at first that it was a prison. It looks like a typical Beaux-Arts apartment building, blending in with the others that line Central Park along 110th St. The only telltale signs are the blacked-out windows, a battery of security cameras, and an ominous metal cage perched above the cornice.

    What surprised me the most about this prison is its park-front location. This real estate might not have been very desirable in the ’70s when the city acquired this property and converted it into a pen. But the new luxury tower half a block away, at the corner of 110th and Lenox, speaks to changing times. I’m sure the inmates’ views from the top are just as spectacular — except for that cage!

    I found some photos here:

    1. thanks david! i think odd juxtapositions are what makes new york city so endlessly fascinating. robert venturi talks about that in his 1966 book complexity and contradiction in architecture, saying that most of the interesting juxtapositions have come from pure accident (trinity church amidst wall street, for example) but that urban planners should think about that when planning. he made sure to always connect his theories on architecture to the cityscape, predicting that urban planning was going to be come more and more relevant.

  2. As Hawthorne wrote, a prison is the “black flower of a civilized society” — an inevitable and necessary weed growing through the crevices of our social order.

    I think that contemplating the idea of a prison shows that the sculptural aspect of architecture cannot be divorced from the functional; that aesthetic value derives from the purpose of a building. A building is not beautiful if you cannot leave it.

    1. thank you alex! i had been trying to figure out how to connect the idea of prisons to architecture and planning, as this is probably one of the most factual posts i’ve written. you make an excellent point – the only building i could think of that could possibly be beautiful while being a place of incarceration is the fictional rapunzel’s castle, but it’s because we always visualize it from the perspective of the prince!

Comments are closed.