Field Trip: Brooklyn Detention Complex Housewarming

I recently spent my Saturday in jail with a few hundred of my neighbors. The jail in question was the Brooklyn Detention Complex, formerly the Brooklyn House of Detention, or “House of D,” a ten-story gray hulk that sits on the north side of Atlantic Avenue at Boerum Place.  The building, which first opened in 1957, has no good angles — it is ugly from every side — but the grand view from its caged, rooftop exercise area encompasses Brooklyn’s priciest neighborhoods: Cobble Hill to the southwest, Brooklyn Heights to the west, and Boerum Hill to the south and immediate north, east and west. In both function and architecture, it seems like an incongruous holdover from an earlier, pre-gentrification era.

Which explains why we were there. Later this month, the jail is set to fill its 759 beds for the first time since the facility was shuttered for renovations in 2003. In advance of the re-opening, the Department of Corrections (DOC) realizes it is confronting a much-changed Boerum Hill; the open house is an attempt to placate the handwringers as part of a coordinated charm offensive. As Warden Walter Nin told The New York Times during a press tour the day before the public open house, “We are fully committed to being good neighbors.”


My fellow voluntary incarcerates seemed like a pretty typical slice of the population in this part of Brooklyn, a mostly well-dressed crowd, some with children, all curious, all — like me — full of questions that betrayed our lack of personal experience with the city’s criminal justice system. We were tourists in a foreign land.

When we arrived on Saturday, Corrections Officers were doing a close approximation of casual and welcoming as they smiled and handed out a list of frequently asked (or soon-to-be-asked) questions prepared by the DOC.

Q: When will the Brooklyn Detention Complex reopen?
A: The Brooklyn Detention Complex is scheduled to reopen in February 2012. Inmates will be transferred to BDC gradually beginning in February 2012.

Q: What type of inmates will be housed there?
A: The majority of inmates will be pre-trial detainees with criminal cases in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Assigning inmates whose court appearances are primarily in Brooklyn will reduce the transportation of prisoners in the area to a minimum.

The waiting room felt like the DMV, rows of white-plastic shell chairs, glaring fluorescent lights — an antiseptic, uncaring purgatory. From there, we walked past a metal detector and down a hallway lined with posters of rules governing visitor behavior ( no rips in jeans; no gang signs). In the large visiting room, where family, friends and lawyers will come to meet with inmates, a field of round, stainless steel tables sprouted from the concrete floor, each with four attached stools jutting out horizontally from its main support trunk, like the pinwheeling petals of a terrifying flower. On a table at the front of the room, the guards had laid out a spread of fruit, coffee and cake, cementing the idea that this was, indeed, a housewarming party. “That’s carrot cake made at Rikers,” one guard said when she saw me eyeing it.

Inmates from Rikers will soon follow that cake to Brooklyn. When the BDC closed in 2003, its inmates were shifted to the city’s main jail complex on Rikers Island, in the East River near La Guardia Airport, to allow for renovation and a planned expansion that would have cost $1 billion and allowed it to accommodate 1,400 inmates. (At one point, the expansion plan called for a bizarre penal/retail combination, with retail tenants on the jail’s ground floor.) The expansion ran into neighborhood resistance and other complications and never came to pass, but now that the BDC has been renovated, inmates will be shifted back from Rikers.

Q: How will inmates be transported to and from court?
A: All of the inmates being taken to and from the Brooklyn Courthouse will be escorted by foot in a secure underground tunnel between the buildings. Any transportation of inmates by bus will occur inside the sally port, a secure entryway located on the northeast side of the building, on the grounds of the jail….

The underground tunnel, which will cut down on the shuttling back and forth between Rikers and the Brooklyn Criminal Court, is only one of several professed advantages to re-opening the facility. Inmates are now expected to be closer to their families, making the visiting process easier during stays which will average, according to the DOC, 56 days per inmate. Such benefits don’t seem to make people more comfortable with the idea of living next to inmates, though their concerns seem to have more to do with property values than with safety.

The Times article, which ran on the same day as the open house, wasted no time in establishing the neighborhood’s changed tenor. The jail, they noted, is now “located down the block from a Barneys Co-op and a Trader Joe’s,” and the intervening period saw the construction of six apartment buildings nearby, fourteen modern townhouses on State Street, across from the entrance for buses carrying prisoners, and a new boutique hotel across the street. The article also gave voice to what might be called the wail of the one percent, giving folks more than enough quote to hang themselves.

There was the woman stopped in front of the YMCA on Atlantic Ave who said she was against the reopening, before adding, “I guess we have to embrace it at this point, but it’s going to limit the gentrification of that area.” (I happen to concur with The Times’ argument that what’s going to limit the gentrification of the area is the fact that it’s already gentrified.) And then a woman who moved to the neighborhood with her husband and four children just six months ago: “‘I never would have agreed to buy this house for all this money had I known it was opening,’ she added, saying that real estate agents told her the jail was going to be converted into condominiums. The couple paid $3.4 million for the town house in July. ‘We took a gamble and lost on this neighborhood.’”

In fact, the DOC announced in August 2010, nearly a year before this woman moved to the neighborhood, that the BDC would be reopening. The takeaway is clear: realtors occasionally, um, stretch the truth.

Back on the tour, our guide stopped in front of the command center, a glassed-in booth full of buttons and screens and radios. “It’s the nerve center of this place,” he said. “Anything happens in this place, they know about it here.” He showed us one of the small emergency radios all guards carry. Someone asked if they carry any other weapons. “Just a small can of chemical spray, pepper spray, like the kind you could carry in your purse.” Then our guard signaled to another inside the booth and he pushed a button that unlocked the deadbolt on huge metal door. It opened with an audible and ominous clank and we were ushered down a corridor, past a stairway, towards the kitchen area. At every point where we might have wandered off — a stairway, another doorway — there was another guard stationed, politely waving us along.

There will be some 500 corrections officers working at the BDC, with anywhere from 50 to 100 per shift. And New York priorities being what they are, those numbers have led to questions about how this influx will impact neighborhood parking. According to Warden Nin, he’s had far more inquiries on the parking question than the security one.

Another seemingly secondary concern that trumped any threat posed by the inmates: the potential impact of non-incarcerated visitors. Memories have suddenly been surfacing of drugs and contraband hidden in neighborhood flowerbeds and of inmates’ visitors’ urinating on stoops and between parked cars.

Q: Describe the visiting process.
A: Inmates’ families and friends may visit on scheduled days and hours…. The visitors’ entrance is located on Boerum Place. A Correction Officer will remain outdoors in the area when visitors are present.

Not everyone sees the influx of visitors and guards in a negative light. The storefront bail bondsmen and lawyers on Atlantic stand to benefit, but so do other local businesses. The Times quotes the manager of the New St. Clair Diner, across Atlantic Avenue from the jail, as saying it could be a boon to his business. “Anything that opens up around here can only be good for me.”

The tour took us through the kitchen – filled with enormous vats that looked like they could boil a whole cow, mixers to make bread for a thousand, several large rooms full of stainless steel implements and trays – and then onto the rest of the freshly scrubbed and painted building. The building is organized into “tiers.” There are four tiers per floor, and each tier houses 16 inmates in single-occupancy cells. The cells are tidy but adequate, with a bed, a sink, a stainless toilet, and a small concrete desk and seat growing out of one wall. A new coat of grey paint has been slathered on cell bars over dozens of earlier coats; touching the wavy, icicle-like texture that resulted was impossible to resist. Midway down the tier is a shared shower. The cells face out across a walkway to a bank of semi-opaque windows on the outer wall. There are no views, but I was surprised by the quality of the light streaming in. These windowed corridors, with their milky glass covered on the outside by a metal scrim, form the dominant feature that you see from the outside.

Q: Do inmates have access to windows in the jail?
A: Inmates are assigned to individual cells. The cells open onto corridors that are supervised by the Correction Officers. Windows are located along the corridors and are not in any of the cells.

After we’d looked at the cells and contemplated what it might be like to pass our days and nights in their sterile embrace, a guard whose nameplate read Capt. Lebron led us into the “day room” at the end of the tier, a 20-by-20-foot room full of metal tables that inmates can opt to spend time in as an alternative to spending the day along in their cells.

“Where do you put the more violent offenders?” one woman asked. Capt. Lebron explained that this was a medium security facility that housed primarily nonviolent, misdemeanor-level offenders. “So there’s no solitary confinement?”

“Not in this building,” said Capt. Lebron. “Have you been watching Law and Order? That’s only on television. If they were a violent offender, they wouldn’t be here.” Law and Order references came up several times in our discussions with the guards throughout the tour, serving to illustrate the gulf between the reality of the guards’ experience and the visitors’ understanding of it. For me, being there did feel like walking into an episode of Law and Order, and Capt. Lebron dutifully played to type. As we were leaving the day room to make room for the next group, someone asked about recidivism, to which Capt. Lebron responded, “We’ve always had some of what I’d call frequent flyers in the system.”

On the way out, near the guard’s entrance area, I passed some framed historic photos hanging on the wall and was drawn to one with a small plaque that explained it depicted the BDC site in 1862. It was a picture of the Boerum Place Synagogue. Nothing endures but change. The Nu Hotel across the street plans to open a sidewalk cafe this summer.

Tim Sohn is a freelance journalist based in New York and a correspondent for Outside Magazine. Recent stories have taken him from New Guinea to Alaska and from BASE-jumping lessons to the Navy SEALs obstacle course. He lives in Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.