The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue
Field Notes

All Jails Fit to Build

Aerial view of unfinished Rikers Island penitentiary buildings, c.1930s. Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives.

“Modern jails can be more humane jails,” the New York Times editorial board opined in October, 2019.1 The “modern jails” came up as part of a City Council referendum to build up to twelve new “borough-based” City jails, with no binding commitment to close the old ones. Such talk is nothing new. Throughout its history, the paper of record has consistently supported jail construction and expansion in New York City, using the rhetoric of progressive reform, playing stenographer to carceral architects, corrections bureaucrats, and city planners who seek to solve the problems of existing jails with still more “modern” sites of human caging. Simultaneously, the Times has chronicled the horrors of the city’s existing carceral facilities—which it had previously lauded—with no mention of the paper’s role in legitimizing these facilities to begin with.

The Tombs: “A Fine Summer Resort”

“Borough-based” jails are nothing new in New York City. The original incarnation of Lower Manhattan’s notorious Tombs facility, opened in 1838, replaced the British colonial jail built before the Revolution. In what would become a familiar cycle, conditions in the British jail compelled the construction of its replacement. Through the mid-1860s, reports of The Tombs published in The Times were positive. “The officials, from the Warden downwards, are obligingly civil;” the paper reported in 1865, “the place is cleaner than we had any previous notion of; the ventilation is, apparently, very good.”2 But with increasing frequency through the 1870s and 1880s, and with urgency and alarm by 1896—a scant sixty years—the Times found the Tombs to be in a condition that “disgraces not only the City of New York but the civilization of the day,” according to a Prison Association report the paper cited approvingly alongside its recommendation for the “complete demolition of the present building and the construction of a new one.”3 While today’s reformers may consider their concern for “humane” conditions a recent invention,4 the Times counseled its readers to remember that The Tombs detained “persons awaiting trial … who may prove to be entirely innocent” in overcrowded, antiquated, defective, and “barbarous” conditions.5

In 1904, the Times reported that the new Tombs, completed in 1902 (after cost overruns and delays), was “a fine summer resort,” “cooler than [a] regular hotel” with “refrigerated air and electric light for [the] City’s guests.” “There is nothing of the damp, prison air about the new Tombs that made the old structure an abomination to enter; none of the dirt and grime,” the paper fawned, enumerating modern amenities.6 Yet by 1930, the Times played stenographer to a scathing State Commission of Correction report detailing how the cells were severely overcrowded, that poor design and staffing enabled both the illegal mixture of sentenced people with people awaiting trial and the mixture of adults with adolescents, and, most alarmingly, that the building itself was “slowly sinking” due to poor construction.7

Predictably, these reports fueled official society’s demands for the reconstruction of The Tombs and the additional construction of an “uptown” jail to relieve overcrowding, improve conditions for those held at The Tombs, and prevent the “spread of criminal propaganda” thought to result from overcrowding in the “Crime Colleges.”8 In 1937, the Board of Estimates issued a special bond to replace the “antiquated,” “inadequate,” and “dangerous” Tombs and in 1938 the Public Works Administration allocated $8.325 million to rebuild the jail.9 In a 1941 piece commemorating a “house warming” for the new facility, the Times celebrated the renovated Tombs as sunny and spacious, with “more than enough room for its ‘guests’” in contrast to the old Tombs, “notorious because of its lack of sunlight and overcrowding as one of the gloomiest in the country.”10

Thirty years later, in 1970, after months of rebellions across New York City jails sparked by counter-insurgent “preventive detention,”11 increasingly brutal jail conditions,12 and a powerfully circulating political analysis of the relationship between incarceration and racial capitalism,13 the Times acted as a mouthpiece of the alarmed ruling classes, putting forward a mollifying “jail reform” consensus. As incarcerated people formed an “Inmates Liberation Front,” and chanted “power to the people,”14 the Times proclaimed “prisoners and officials agree[:] change in system is needed.”15 Lengthy federal litigation eventually forced the city to shutter and rebuild The Tombs.16 In keeping with the “law and order” zeitgeist of the period, a 1983 Times opinion piece about the renovated Tombs jail sounded an ambivalent note about the practicality of progressive jail architecture (versus design geared simply toward incapacitation), but ultimately concluded, “Jails controlled by amenities rather than bars make a statement about civilization as well as security.”17 Just as liberals love a humanitarian crisis about which they can proclaim their dismay while disclaiming responsibility for its emergence, they love a solution that reproduces—rather than undermines—the conditions of its production.

Rikers: “The Most Modern Institution of its Kind in the Country”

The Times also parroted the City’s talking points about the original Rikers Island Penitentiary in the years leading up to its 1935 completion. In fact, the Times began celebrating the potential for a “model penitentiary” on Rikers Island, to take the place of the scandal-plagued Blackwell’s Island, as early as 1886, when most of today’s Rikers’s surface was still under water!18 As with the serial reconstructions of The Tombs, urgency around deteriorating conditions in the city’s workhouses and poorhouses eventually generated the political pressure to resolve jails’ perpetual crises—overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, brutality, idleness—with new jail construction.19 Just as today, when liberal reformers drum up support for the new jails behind the theory that existing facilities are inadequate to the complex needs of incarcerated people, in 1930 the Times favorably cited Department of Corrections Commissioner Richard C. Patterson to say “it has been a practice of many years’ standing to use the penal institutions… as dumping grounds for the physically and mentally unfit, many of whom, through ordinary motives of decency and humanity (not to mention the practical side) should have been sent to hospitals or to some other institutions where they could receive custodial care more suited to their needs.”20

Rikers was meant to be the cornerstone institution in this modernization of corrections—where proper classification and new penological models of custody and rehabilitation (rather than confinement and idleness) were to be the norm. The Times, as per its customary function, reported this new penal hagiography without comment or criticism.21 In 1931, the paper proclaimed that Rikers would be “the most modern institution of its kind in the country.”22 As the first 500 incarcerated people were transferred to the Island in 1935, the Times extolled the penitentiary’s modern cells, industrial building (to stave off idleness), medical facilities conducive to rehabilitation, and an auditorium to provide “motion pictures and other entertainments.”23 Mere weeks later, the Penitentiary’s first prison break was recorded.24 By 1938, the fact that the penitentiary was constructed on top of a landfill—once extolled as evidence of the island’s capacity to redeem urban refuse—was finally recognized as a hazard not only to incarcerated people’s health, but to their “rehabilitation.”25

By 1950, as the cycle of crisis and reform chugged along its predictable track, a Grand Jury investigation revealed that overcrowding on Rikers “endanger[ed] the safety of correction officers and nullif[ed] sound penology.”26 In the early 1970s, writing in the New York Times Magazine, Harvey Swados penned a scathing expose of “The City’s Island of the Damned,” inaugurating nearly 50 years of incisive investigative journalism of Rikers, with no acknowledgement whatsoever of the paper’s role in propagandizing time and again for the penal colony’s establishment and expansion.27 This genre of journalism presents the degradation and misery of working-class people of color in excruciating detail for the entertainment of a largely middle-class audience, with little accompanying context of how these miseries came to be, or how they could be alleviated in the long term. Except, of course, with new jails, which the Times is always happy to support. After all, when the City erected a bridge to Rikers Island in 1966, which replaced the ferry and thereby enabled the considerable infrastructural expansion of the Island, the Times dubbed the structure a “Bridge of Hope.”28

Women’s Detention: “Like an Eastern Girls’ College”

Facilities for women have been no different. When the notorious New York Women’s House of Detention was unveiled in the early 1930s, the Times was effusive in its praise. Hailing the facility as “New York’s model prison,” “ornamented and terraced in the Manhattan manner, look[ing] not unlike a better-class apartment house,” the Times celebrated “blocks of light,” “airy rooms,” and the bright colors of women’s uniforms. Gone are the cells, it boasted boldly; the cages “called rooms, and rightly so.” Measuring 10.5 by 6.5 feet, the Times reasoned, they can hardly be called cells. After all, this is “not much smaller than many bedrooms in boarding houses,” and were moreover adorned with windows free of bars. “The walls are buff terra cotta,” the paper continued, adding somewhat perplexingly, “the floors of a composition easy to walk on.” The facility’s design, the Times boasted, was based on a careful study of the needs of people held on Welfare Island, the previous site of women’s incarceration, which had been found untenable and in need of replacement.29 Soon enough, the Times would traffic in the lurid scandals generated by the Women’s House of Detention, dubbed a “snake pit,” and the paper’s solution would be more of the same.30

“Welcome to New York’s newest and perhaps best hotel,” the Times favorably cited Commissioner McGrath declaring upon the opening of the Correctional Institution for Women (CIFW) on Rikers Island in 1971, which replaced the Women’s House of Detention.31 “With its sleek, two-story chevron design, large windows, and brightly colored interior,” the Times gushed, “it looks more like an Eastern girls’ college than a detention facility.” Under the heading “Prison Architects are Breaking Tradition’s Bars,” the paper celebrated the facility in a prose more suitable for its Real Estate pages, rhapsodizing how its facilities “sprawled across the northern edge of the island, giving the inmates a commanding view of the East River.”32 The 1974 death of Juanita Robinson at CIFW, whose need for serious medical attention was ignored by civilian and uniformed staff of the city court and jail systems, indicated that shiny facilities could only go so far toward mitigating the structural neglect underlying incarceration.33

Heedless of this lesson, the Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC), the present women’s jail on Rikers, was opened in 1988, replacing CIFW to much fanfare.34 The CIFW became the George Motchan Detention Center when RMSC was completed, an adult men’s and later an adolescent jail, until it was closed in 2018. At CIFW’s dedication ceremony, Mrs. Singer, appointed to the civilian Board of Correction in 1957 by Mayor Wagner and after whom the jail was named, stated, “I hope the center will be a place of hope and renewal for all the women who come here.” Among its virtues was a nursery, which the Times endorsed as “a good first step”—although a first step to what, beyond incarcerating infants, remained elusive.36 By 2011, scarcely 25 years later, the DOC used the Rose M. Singer Center’s dilapidated conditions to justify building a six-story annex to the jail,37 even as the jail’s population was steeply declining.38 The Times offered no comment—either on deteriorating conditions at Rosie’s or on the new jail’s promised improvement. Today, the Times is at it again, arguing for a staggering $11 billion overhaul of the city’s jail system, using the same arguments that have fueled the City’s carceral expansion for over a century.

A Jail Fight the Times Lost

The Times’s most recent pro-jail editorial boasts righteously of having dubbed Rikers “synonymous with brutality, incompetence, corruption and neglect.” Yet, this admits nothing of the paper’s legitimizing and encouraging the facility’s construction and expansion in the first place. Similarly, the paper yet again rings the jail reformers’ bells it has so proudly (and mistakenly) tolled in the past: “There are a limited number of jail beds in New York City outside of Rikers Island [in] aging buildings that are dangerous for the jailed and the jailers,” the editors write, “and they lack the needed space for programming that makes re-entry to society easier and recidivism less likely… The reason to build new jails is for the more humane confinement of people who pose a threat to their communities.”39 As before, the Times is willfully ignorant of its complicity40 in providing the intellectual armature of New York City’s carceral status quo over the past century and a half. Perhaps the Times could take a lesson from abolitionist Mariame Kaba, who recently warned City Council: “We will be back in this room, I promise you, in ten years, if these four new facilities are built, calling these facilities inhumane.”41

The above examples are only the most direct cases of the Times’s storied history of relentlessly supporting carceral expansion in New York City. Cases abound of the paper dressing human cages in the trappings of what James Kilgore calls “carceral humanism,”42 whether in celebrations of jail-based education for adolescents,43 theatrical performances designed to mitigate the enforced idleness of people held away from their families and jobs,44 or horticulture programming meant to ease the mental stress of nightmarish conditions.45 This says nothing of the paper’s reliable complicity in endorsing the regimes of policing,46real estate,47 politics,48 and law49 which have placed police and jails among the central figures of social reproduction for working-class communities, especially communities of color, throughout the city’s history.

In closing, however, it’s valuable to recall the history of a jail the Times failed to get built. In the early 1980s, the paper beat the drum for the White Street Jail, to be adjacent to Tombs and the court complex at 100 Centre Street.50 In the wake of the fiscal crisis, the gutting of the social safety net, and urban rebellions met with massive repression, the City’s jail system was packed far beyond capacity with criminalized people from disinvested communities and captives of the nascent War on Drugs.51 In response, the Times could only imagine redressing crowding with more sites of incarceration. But despite the best efforts of the Times and other emissaries of New York City elite society, the White Street Jail was cancelled following a massive demonstration—10,000 strong—by the residents of Chinatown and Little Italy.52 20 years later, Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to open a new jail in the South Bronx was similarly defeated—twice!—by Community in Unity, a Bronx-based, “no jails, anywhere” abolitionist organization lead by criminalized and formerly incarcerated people.53

Today, the city has recycled the same plans and arguments for jail construction, down to the retail space on the jails’ ground floor meant to appease the petty bourgeoisie and gentrifiers.54 For its part, the Times has moved in lock step. “We don’t know if future generations will seek to jail more New Yorkers or fewer,” the editors wrote, in a telling passage from their endorsement. “But infrastructure construction can both enable policy flexibility or lock in past policy preferences … Having too few beds could lead to overcrowding if a future administration returned to policies that rely on more incarceration.”55

Yet again, the Times is throwing its weight behind a veritable disaster for working-class New Yorkers in need of meaningful alternatives to criminalization. Abolitionists argue that these alternatives—including community-led projects to eliminate poverty, economic exploitation, homelessness, and displacement; to fund liberation-based popular and public school education; and to teach conflict resolution, mediation, violence interruption, and restorative and transformative responses to conflict and harm—would truly promote safety and dignity for the communities hit hardest by racist policing and incarceration.56 Facing the devastating prospect of a citywide jail expansion creating the nightmare facilities of tomorrow, cheered on, as in the past, by the city’s most respected paper, the example set by the grassroots organizers opposing jail construction in Lower Manhattan and the South Bronx give us heart. The Times may be the ruling-class’s “paper of record,” but ultimately, it is working class organizing that makes history.57

  1. The Editorial Board, “How to Close Rikers Island,” New York Times, October 13, 2019.
  2. New York Times, “The Tombs,” August 17, 1865.
  3. New York Times, “The Vile ‘Tombs,’” January 4, 1896.
  4. Vera Institute of Justice, Reimagining Prison, New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018.
  5. New York Times, “The Vile ‘Tombs.’”
  6. New York Times, “New Tombs Prison a Fine Summer Resort,” July 31, 1904.
  7. New York Times, “Fear Tombs Prison Might Collapse,” January 18, 1930.
  8. New York Times, “Urge Uptown Jail to Relieve Tombs,” February 22, 1989; New York Times, “Maps Prison Plans Here,” October 22, 1930.
  9. New York Times, “Tombs Condemned Again,” March 26, 1937.
  10. New York Times, “‘House Warming’ for New Tombs,” November 27, 1941.
  11. Toussaint Losier, “Against ‘Law and Order’ Lockup: The 1970 NYC Jail Rebellions,” Race and Class 59, no. 1, 12.
  12. New York City Board of Correction, “Public Hearings Into the Manhattan House of Detention and the Available Alternatives,” New York: Board of Correction, 1974, (retrieved November 15, 2019).
  13. George Jackson, Soledad Brother (New York: Coward-McCann, 1970).
  14. John Sibley, “Prisoners Seize Hostages, Take Over Jail in Queens,” New York Times, October 2, 1970. For an excellent narrative of this citywide rebellion, see: Losier, “Against ‘Law and Order’ Lockup.”
  15. Lesley Oelsner, “The Quest for Justice,” New York Times, October 6, 1970.
  16. Hon. Harold Baer, Jr. and Arminda Bepko, “A Necessary and Proper Role for Federal Courts in Prison Reform: The Benjamin v. Malcolm Consent Decrees,” New York Law School Law Review 52 (2007/08), 3-64.
  17. New York Times, “New York’s ‘New Generation’ Jails,” October 25, 1983.
  18. New York Times, “To Build a Bigger Jail,” September 20, 1886.
  19. Jarrod Shanahan and Jack Norton, “A Jail to End All Jails,” Urban Omnibus (December 6, 2017), (accessed December 10, 2019).
  20. New York Times, “The City Prisons,” November 25, 1930.
  21. New York Times, “10% Reform Chance Seen for Prisoners,” July 6, 1930.
  22. New York Times, “File Plans for Unit of $8,000,000 Prison,” March 14, 1930.
  23. New York Times, “New Prison Ready on Rikers Island,” June 30, 1935.
  24. New York Times, “First to Flee New Jail,” December 11, 1935.
  25. New York Times, “Riker’s Island Use as Dump Denounced,” November 27, 1938.
  26. New York Times, “Safety Risk Seen on Rikers Island,” January 29, 1950.
  27. Harvey Swados, “The City’s Island of the Damned,” New York Times Magazine, April 26, 1970.
  28. John C. Devlin, “’Bridge of Hope’ to Rikers Island is Dedicated Here,” New York Times, November 23, 1966.
  29. New York Times, “Women’s House of Detention Protects the First Offenders,” March 8, 1931.
  30. Sydney H. Schanberg, “Women Here Tell of ‘Snake-Pit’ Jail,” New York Times, April 14, 1965.
  31. Paul L. Montgomery, “Jail for Women Dedicated Here,” New York Times, June 19, 1971.
  32. New York Times, “Prison Architects Break Tradition’s Bars,” August 11, 1971.
  33. Alfonso A. Narvaez, “Prisoner’s Death Laid to Poor Care,” New York Times, June 2, 1975.
  34. Correction News (July 1988), “Rose M. Singer Center Opens on Rikers Island,” (accessed December 25, 2019).
  35. Bold Print, “G.M.D.C. Closes,” January/February 2018.
  36. New York Times, “City Agrees to Provide a Nursery in Women’s Jail on Rikers Island,” September 25, 1984.
  37. Petracca & Sons, “Rikers Island,” (accessed December 14, 2019).
  38. Vera Institute of Justice, “Incarceration Trends,” (accessed November 29, 2019).
  39. The Editorial Board, “How to Close Rikers Island.”
  40. See: James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998).
  41. Anakwa Dwamena, “Closing Rikers: Competing Visions for the Future of New York City’s Jails,” New York Review of Books (October 4, 2019), (accessed October 4, 2019).
  42. James Kilgore, “Repackaging Mass Incarceration,” Counterpunch (June 6, 2014), (accessed November 11, 2019).
  43. Robert H. Terte, “Theobold Praises School at Prison,” New York Times, March 22, 1960.
  44. J. Anthony Lukas, “Rikers Prisoners Turned into Actors,” New York Times, October 15, 1967.
  45. Richard Schiffman, “The Secret Jailhouse Garden of Rikers Island,” New York Times, October 4, 2019.
  46. New York Times, “Bringing the Murder Rate Down,” July 17, 1995.
  47. New York Times (2013), “Reshaping New York,” (accessed December 3, 2019).
  48. The Editorial Board, “Bill De Blasio, the Best Democratic Choice for Mayor,” New York Times, September 5, 2017.
  49. Jack Roth, “Broader Leeway for Police Urged,” New York Times, February 5, 1964.
  50. New York Times, “Build the White Street Jail,” December 2, 1982.
  51. Kim Phillips-Fein, “How the 1977 Blackout Unleashed New York City’s Tough-on-Crime Policies,” Washington Post, July 13, 2017.
  52. Maurice Carroll, “Action on Chinatown Jail Put off After Protest,” New York Times, November 19, 1982.
  53. Timothy Williams, “The City Withdraws its Proposal for a $375 Million Jail in the South Bronx,” New York Times, March 5, 2018; Pilar Maschi and Jarrod Shanahan, “There Are Abolitionists All Around Us,” Commune, Fall 2019.
  54. Van Alen Institute and Lippman Commission, Justice in Design: Towards a Healthier and More Just New York City Jail System, (New York: Lippman Commission, 2017); Lippman Commission, A More Just City, (New York: Lippman Commission, 2017); Lippman Commission, A More Just City: One Year Forward, (New York: Lippman Commission, 2018).
  55. The Editorial Board, “How to Close Rikers Island.”
  56. For example, No New Jails’ Close Rikers Now: We Keep Us Safe community guide shows how New York City could divest from jails and invest in the communities most impacted by mass incarceration. (accessed January 7, 2020).
  57. The contemporary prison abolitionist movement would not exist without the relentless organizing of incarcerated people. This single page from Issue 31 of The Abolitionist (2012) lists dozens of jail and prison uprisings in 1970-1971 alone. (accessed January 7, 2019).


Jarrod Shanahan

Jarrod Shanahan is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Governors State University.

Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot

Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues