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The Tombs Prison

A photo of the first Tombs building also known as The 'New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention'. Built in 1838, it was designed by the English born John Haviland and was based on an engraving of an ancient Egyptian mausoleum.

A photo of the first Tombs building also known as The 'New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention'. Built in 1838, it was designed by the English born John Haviland and was based on an engraving of an ancient Egyptian mausoleum.

The first of the infamous ‘Tombs Prisons’ was finished in 1838, modeled after an ancient Egyptian mausoleum and built on top of a swamp in what had to be one of the biggest architectural mistakes in the history of the American penal system. The ‘Tombs’ was built on the Collect Pond, fabled birth place of steam navigation, and one-time fishing retreat that due to the popular  habit of tossing garbage in the water, became a filthy swamp.  When construction began in 1835, it was determined that the marshy ground required a more solid foundation to be built and workers sunk the trunks of hemlock trees to provide support. The Prison was completed 3 years later though due to poor construction, began to sink into the ground after a mere 5 months of use.

 

The Tombs were prone to structural damage, floods and had a near constant smell of sewage. A Times article quotes building inspectors as saying the prison was “badly ventilated” and that there were pools of “disease-breeding matter” under the courts and in the walls. The sewer system often backed up when it rained and filled the lower tiers with raw sewage, soaking the unfortunate men in the low-lying cells. The prison’s waste pipes didn’t empty into the sewer, but rather, were dumped onto the ground outside the prison and much of the prison was unventilated leaving inmates to do all but suffocate. The air quality of the prison was comparable to the steerage section of a ship though in the words of one reporter, “There is more fresh air in steerage quarters”.

 

The already unsanitary condition of the prison was only made worse by its constant overcrowding. The Tombs were originally built to house around 200 prisoners with one man to each cell, but by 1894, the prison held nearly 600 people forcing guards to stuff two, three and sometimes four men together. Prisoners had a choice of sharing the one bed in the cell, sleeping on a hammock, or trying to find a comfortable spot on the stone cold floor and some inmates were denied even that. Prisoners with five to ten day sentences (given to people with minor offences) were put in the “Bummers’ Hall”‒a room that measured twelve by thirty and that often held 200 or more individuals at a time.

The prison’s security was a joke. The kitchens couldn’t handle all the prisoners and to keep them fed, the family and friends of inmates were allowed to bring in food and other packages, often smuggling in alcohol along the way. The Tombs were so packed with people during visiting hours that it often looked more like a social club than a prison. Breakouts were a common thing and were literally as easy as taking a piece of paper. Anyone who had a visitors pass was allowed to leave the prison‒whether they were an inmate or not. However, the unfortunate people whose families were too poor to visit or bring food were excluded from all this.

The Tombs was infamous for its corruption and it was a general rule that the more money you had, the better your treatment in the Tombs. Poor prisoners were put in the lower tiers where brooms and mops were “a total stranger”. Sometimes as many as 8 men were put in a cell together when empty cells stood not 10 feet away in blatant attempts to extort money from inmates desperate enough to pay money for personal space. On the flips side, rich prisoners hadall the luxuries of home while in theTombs. They were allowed hours of exercise time, catered food, allowed clean sheets, given cells with windows, cigars and private time with wives and women who would visit the prison after hours.

Suicide was a regular thing in the Tombs. Despite being confined, the inmates found ‘creative’ to kill themselves including: hanging, drowning, and climbing to the top of the prison only to drop headfirst to the ground. Many of the men that killed themselves were innocent and had been imprisoned for long periods of time without a trial. Many people of the time condisered suicide a ‘way out’ including the man who inspired Whitman to become a poet, McDonald Clarke. 

 The Mad Poet of Broadway: McDonald Clarke

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