Downtown Brooklyn is a clutter of glassy high-rise condos and office towers, but inasmuch as it’s possible to mar such an unremarkable skyline, the Brooklyn House of Detention does it. Its ugliness makes it oddly timeless, its coarse exterior offering few hints as to when or why it was built. Towering over both the Atlantic Avenue antique-ing corridor and the Cobble-Boerum Hill brunch belt, the BHoD seems outside of history, an intervention from a bygone age of recklessly bad urban planning, and even worse public design. But seeing as there are over 17,000 inmates in the New York City prison system, and nearly 7 million Americans in the correctional system nationwide, the BHoD is discomfortingly of its time and place as well. So what better indulgence of basic curiosity and latent socio-political anxieties than an open house of the place, offered by the New York City Department of Correction on the occasion of its impending re-opening?
The open house, which was offered on a sunny Saturday morning in early February, covered all your prison highlights—the visiting rooms, the control room, examples of standard-issue prison riot gear. But let’s start in the kitchen, which will largely be inmate-staffed when the BHoD, which was built in 1956 and closed in 2003 after a decline in the city’s prison population, resumes housing prisoners in mid-February, thanks to the demolition of some deteriorating buildings at an already overcrowded Rikers Island. The most jarring thing about BHoD’s industrial kitchen, which includes large metal vats and an ominously named piece of machinery called a “blast chiller,” were the thick glass windows, tinted just enough to let in some humane amount of outside light, without offering any concrete sense of an outside world. There’s an untinted sliver of window running along the the crease just below the ceiling, offering inmates a somewhat irrelevant pin-box view of neighboring rooftops and the weather. The result is an amber, post-nuclear ambience almost calculated to accentuate the BHoD’s stainless steel and cinderblock aesthetic. Real sunlight, real food, a non-oppressive color palette—the kitchen vividly communicated that these are privileges for the free.
The same goes for breathing room. There’s no central dining hall: inmates eat with the 15 other members of their “housing tier” in a “day room” located a few feet from their cellblocks. On most floors, the ceiling is maddeningly low, and the lack of natural light gives a subterranean feel to the many snaking corridors. Spend more than 30 minutes here, and the mind undoubtedly becomes a cramped space as well: the day room bulletin board included reminders that inmates’ phone calls are probably being recorded, and inmates are banned from brining pictures of themselves into the facility, for fear they could use them to make fake ID cards and escape (if they bring in a family photo, they have to crop themselves out). It’s worth pointing out that the 760 or so inmates who’ve begun moving in are all awaiting trial for crimes punishable by no more than a year in prison, and are officially considered “low to medium classification” in terms of potential for violence or danger to correctional staff.
Speaking of which, “New York’s Boldest” all seemed genuinely enthusiastic at the rare opportunity to show off their domain to scores of curious outsiders. An affable, uniformed man saw me taking notes and asked me if I’d ever been inside a prison before. No, I had to admit. What did I think? Well, I said, noting the dreary 1950s-ness of the place, I was surprised to see that it was so, well, low-tech. I expected it to be a bit more like the prison scene in Face/Off, you know? You hear that, the correctional officer said to a couple of nearby colleagues. He thought it would look like the prison in Face/Off! Laughter all around. The BHoD’s main lobby had fliers for a retirement party out in Queens, an oddly poignant reminder that there are 500 corrections employees for whom this prison is a workplace rather than (or perhaps in addition to) a towering fortress of concentrated misery.
The corrections officers’ laughter at my faux pas accentuated just how little contact the vast majority of us have with said misery, even as it stares at us from the foreground of the Brooklyn skyline. Maybe this explains why so many of the people who turned out for the open house looked like locals: white, sharply dressed, beardy and in their late 20s to early 30s. At least one guy was rocking a Baby Björn. Back on the outside, I chatted up a fellow in stylish jeans and a rainbow-pattern scarf, whose girlfriend said in an accent that I think was Swedish that the prison tour had appealed to her nerdly interest in “logistically challenging issues,” like public transit or water treatment. “I think a prison makes sense here,” the man said. “It brings a little reality to the neighborhood.”