The Legacy of Violence at the Manhattan Jail Known as the 'Tombs'
Though Rikers Island has gotten the recent media attention, New York City's other jails have also been beset by scandals.
The bridge connecting the two towers of the Manhattan Detention Complex. Photo by the author
It was a Wednesday, Cadeem Gibbs remembers.
Commissary day, to be precise—the time of the week when inmates can buy food with their own spare money, which he strongly preferred to the grub served up by jail staff. Mostly, though, the day stands out to Gibbs because his fiancée was coming to visit him: January 7, 2015.
But that day, on 6 North, the floor in New York City's downtown Manhattan jail where Gibbs was being held, a fight broke out between two inmates. It quickly escalated: The pair drew knives, stabbing and slashing each other numerous times before correction officers could pull them apart, Gibbs said.
Once the inmates were detained, the standard aftermath procedure followed: emergency service units (ESUs) swarmed the place. Nicknamed "turtles" for their outfits' resemblance to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the ESU officers had every inmate face the wall while their cells were searched for weapons and contraband. As the facility was shut down, Gibbs's fiancée idled in the lobby, waiting to see him. She was told to come back another time.
The next Tuesday, Gibbs was moved to 7 North. A few days after that, on January 17, another fight broke out on his new floor. Six inmates got slashed with weapons smuggled in from the outside, he told me. Again, the facility was shut down, and again, Gibbs's fiancée was told to go home.
"The same ESU officer that searched my cell in 6 North had searched my cell in 7 North, coincidentally," Gibbs said. "I remember him looking at me, saying, 'Didn't I just search you last week downstairs?'"
In a May interview with VICE, Gibbs added that there were "many, many, many other instances" of violence, usually gang-related and often over something frivolous. He even claims to have seen his fellow inmates fight over a salad.
As fighting became routinized, the days began to blur.
"You kind of get desensitized because you see it so frequently, right in front of you," Gibbs said. "After a while, you get emotionally detached." And when the turtles come, he added, you're already against the wall.
From December 2014 through this April, Gibbs was detained in the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC), also known as the Tombs, a jail complex that generally houses low-security inmates awaiting trial. The two 15-floor colossuses of criminal justice house a total of 881 beds for male inmates who can't make bail in America's largest city and are lucky enough to avoid Rikers Island, the abuse-plagued complex north of Queens.
Former inmates told me the atmosphere inside is dark and damp, and temperatures vary. Sometimes it's as cold as a refrigerator; at others, the kitchen feels like a sauna. Not much light makes it through the slits that serve as windows, and little movement is allowed outside of cells, especially on high-security floors.
At 125 White Street, the two faceless towers loom. Bail bond offices sit across the block, their neon lights tucked in between bars and coffee shops. There are only two doors open to the public at the ground level: one to pay bail or send money to an inmate in a small, dim room, and the other to visit inmates.
But posting up outside of the Tombs is always a bit surreal. When I last visited, some sort of alarm was emitting white noise from somewhere near the parked inmate transport buses and staff cars. A quiet, automated voice explained visiting hours in both Spanish and English, while tourists passed by without paying much attention.
City Hall is down the block; Manhattan Criminal Court is connected to the jail through an underground elevator. Chinatown is right behind you, the Financial District is in front, and SoHo is a stone's throw away.
Gibbs was there for a parole violation after doing time for a cocaine possession charge, and as a result of past brush-ins with the law, he was placed on a high-security floor. He called the Tombs a "permanent dark cloud," and during his time there, he'd sometimes stand on his bed and stare out the small slit of a window, down onto the bustling streets.
Gibbs is now 24, free, and working as a criminal justice consultant with the Juvenile Defense Fund. But in letters to his fiancée in Harlem from the Tombs, he would write of his location, "So distant, yet so close."
Rikers Island might be the scariest jail in America. Reports of brutality and corruption there have attracted attention from the federal Department of Justice (DOJ), city officials, and civil liberties advocates, though a pending legal settlement offers hope for reform. But according to interviews with former inmates, officials, and lawyers, the Tombs—though far less prominent in the public imagination—has a violent legacy of its own.
"You had strange things happening in the Tombs," one former high-ranking New York City Department of Correction (DOC) official told me. "The corruption part was heavy. It was always heavy."
The Manhattan Detention Complex is one of two active "borough houses" in New York City. The other is the Brooklyn House of Detention, which closed in 2003 and reopened in 2012. There were once similar facilities in the Bronx and Queens as well, but no longer. The Bronx House of Detention was demolished in 2000 (a Staples and a Home Depot now occupy the land where it once stood), and the Queens House—which had its own sordid streak of violence—was closed by the DOC in 2002.
The only other borough facility (though technically not a "house") is an 800-bed floating barge of a jail off the coast of the Bronx called the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, which houses Rikers's overflow.
The Tombs gets its name from one of its predecessors, a monolith built in the 1830s that was done in the Egyptian Revival style and based on the design of an Egyptian mausoleum. The name is an anachronism—The Tombs is an ordinary jail in many ways, and the only two underground areas are for inmate intake and transportation.
These days, Rikers is New York's most notorious jail, but at the end of the 1960s, the Tombs was an overcrowded nightmare that drew lots of negative press. According to the New York Times, "Prisoners slept on concrete floors without blankets and contended with roaches, body lice and mice. Guards were frequently accused of brutality. A suicide was attempted every week."
In August 1970, the inmates there rioted and took five COs hostage on the ninth floor. They were released after negotiations with Mayor John Lindsay, who, balking on his promise, sent the rioters to Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York—a move that helped set the stage for the infamous riots there a year later. In 1974, after a class-action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society, a judge named Morris Lasker found conditions there to be unconstitutional, and ordered the Tombs to be shut down immediately.
After a slew of similar court orders, the city dedicated millions to modernizing its correctional facilities throughout the 80s. The "New Tombs" (or at least the South Tower) reopened in 1983, after a $42 million renovation; seven years later, the brand-new North Tower was completed. A bridge was built to connect the two, which are known by inmates as the "hotel" and the "projects," respectively. In the North Tower, a button opens your door, and the cells have long tables where you can sit. In the South Tower, the cells are more cramped, and a guard must open the gate to let you out.
By the end of the 80s, conditions at Rikers had become so bad that borough houses had become refuges of sorts for inmates—no one wanted to cross the bridge to the terrifying island.
"The inmates wouldn't want to get an infraction. If you got an infraction, that meant you were transferred from the borough house to Rikers," Stanley Richards, a former inmate who spent time there and in the Bronx House, told me. "The borough houses, back when I was in, [were] the place you wanted to be. Your family has access to you, and they don't have to do that whole Rikers Island bit, with travel, the alarms, and the bridge closings. It's a whole different culture. So inmates would work really hard not to be taken away from the borough houses."
Richards is the vice president of the Fortune Society, an advocacy organization that helps former inmates readjust to regular life. In May, he began a stint on the New York City Board of Correction (BOC), a regulatory panel that is supposed to set standards for all city jails. It also monitors the DOC, the city agency in charge of an inmate population of approximately 11,400. He is one of just a handful of former inmates to ever serve in that position. (I've interviewed him before for VICE about prison reform.)
By the time Richards was released from state prison, where he spent four and a half years for robbery, the violence in the city's jails was getting out of control. Rikers was on the brink of riots; in just two months in 1994, there were an estimated 176 slashings or stabbings on the island, or one for every 90 inmates. And the city's jail population was soaring, as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's signature broken windows policing policies sent more New Yorkers to jail for low-level infractions than ever before.
For Glenn Martin, founder of JustLeadership USA, a prison reform group, all that came to a head in 1995, when he was detained in the Tombs for almost three months before moving to Rikers. Back then, he said, the violence was coming not only from the inmates, but also the officers tasked with maintaining law and order. While not as hellish as Rikers, where US Attorney Preet Bharara last year found a "culture of violence," the Tombs of the mid 90s was a dangerous place.
Martin described the environment as a "microcosm of society, but very perverse." White inmates would be favored for maintenance jobs over black inmates like himself. A competition of alpha masculinity, he said, existed between inmates and male guards determined to impress female COs. If an inmate openly flirted too much, he'd pay for it later on with a beating. Female COs would lead on inmates, and if a fight broke out that didn't involve or implicate any COs, guards would look the other way, former inmates said.
"I remember the officers creating an environment where, as long as you weren't embarrassing officers in front of [their] supervisors, that it was OK to get into a fight and hurt each other," Martin recalls. "As long as you cleaned up the mess afterward, and it didn't happen when the supervisors were coming by. Even the officers would let you know when their supervisors were coming by."
In the public eye, though, things seemed to quiet down for a while by the early 2000s, when the Tombs were formally renamed the Bernard B. Kerik Complex after the man who got a high-ranking position in the city's jail system in 1994, and was promoted to DOC commissioner in 1998. Kerik would go on to become NYPD commissioner two years later, and eventually the interim minister of the interior in the temporary Iraqi coalition government (no joke). Before pleading guilty to tax fraud and serving four years in federal prison, Kerik was in the running for the head of Homeland Security. He lost that chance, as well as his name on the Tombs, in 2006.
Before his disgrace, Kerik brought the city's jails back from the brink, earning praise from Harvard University's JFK School of Government. From 1994 to 2000, inmate knife violence dropped 93 percent; serious use of force incidents plummeted 72 percent. Under his management, aggressive searches of inmates and seizures of inmates skyrocketed, while a data-driven system called TEAMS—or Total Efficiency Accountability Management System, similar to the NYPD's COMPSTAT crime mapping scheme—helped pinpoint "hot" facilities, or those with the most violence.
Aside from the rare inmate suicide, Kerik said he doesn't remember much drama at the Tombs.
"There was nothing that stands out to me. I mean, six years. Don't remember ever having a problem there," Kerik, who after his stint in federal prison became a criminal justice reform advocate, told me. "If you're going to and from court, you were housed in Manhattan, unless you were super violent or needed some administrative segregation somewhere." (In that case, you'd go to Rikers.)
"When you have a facility like that, right in the heart of a community, you want to make sure that the facility is safe and secure," Kerik argued. "You don't need problems in those facilities."
But Kerik said he's heard from former and current correction officers that these days, the Tombs is basically "another facility out on Rikers."
Twenty-nine-year-old Anthony, who would not give his last name, lives in a three-quarters house in Harlem. He told me he's been detained at the Tombs nearly 20 times for selling crack cocaine between 2007 and 2012.
When he arrived for any given stay, he said he would meet inmates from all over the greater tri-state area. "Sometimes, I'd see guys from Brooklyn and Long Island. And I'm like, 'Yo, how'd you get here?' and they'd be like, 'Yo, I don't even know,'" he told me. "'When they first arrested me, I was in the Bronx and they sent me to the Brooklyn House and then they sent me to the Manhattan House.' And I'm like, 'Wow, you did a lot of traveling.'"
Anthony said his time at the Tombs was marked by violence committed by guards rather than inmates. He recalled COs using force on inmates to impress female colleagues, and guards hitting inmates for talking back to them (similar incidents were cited in a 2014 DOJ report on Rikers). The COs would also temporarily cut off inmates' mail and phone privileges, or come into cells and hit them, Anthony said. During visits to the medical office, Anthony added, guards ignored his plea for Advil. He even referred to COs who drank on the job, the smell of alcohol on their breath all too apparent. (Some guards would apparently push back against those rogue colleagues, saying out loud that what they were doing was blatantly wrong.)
Along with other inmates he knew, Anthony said he had received an extra assault charge for fighting back against a CO. This, of course, lengthens the time spent behind bars, but from what Anthony described, it's a no-win situation: You're constantly talked down to, but if you decide to talk back, you're the one who pays.
"They'll put out their pen, and say, 'My pen will hurt you more than anything,'" Anthony recalled. "They always say that: 'My pen will hurt you more than anything.'"
In June 2007, when he first arrived in the Tombs, Anthony said an inmate talked back to a CO in the gym on 7 South and was then beaten in front of Anthony and his friends. Anthony and other inmates locked the door,so the turtles couldn't immediately enter; in their minds, this was so the fight could continue fairly. Eventually the door was opened, and the inmate was "jumped and maced," as Anthony recalled.
Later that year, on December 5, Anthony said he watched a fight break out between a CO and an inmate. Same reason: The inmate said something, and the CO smacked him. The kid was beaten so bad, Anthony said, that when he was brought back to the cell later, all the inmates were told to stand against the wall; this time, it was so they couldn't see the bruises. "'Sit on your bed, don't look through your window,'" Anthony said, impersonating the COs. "If they catch you looking through your window, they'll rough you up. 'Close your eyes. Look at the wall.'"
Like Cadeem Gibbs, Anthony said the days lost their significance, instead forming into one long sequence of violence that put every inmate and CO on constant guard. It was "mind-rattling," he said—something he couldn't believe was going on in downtown Manhattan.
"I used to go to Catholic services for peace of mind and just to feel like I'm not there," he said. "Just to keep my mind sane, because being in there, your way of thinking is totally different. A fight will break out over there, or someone was cut over there. You have to be very regularly aware of what's going on—you're on pins and needles. Because you never know what's gonna happen."
In the past several years, a number of scandals have hit the Tombs. In June 2009, the longtime rabbi at the facility, Leib Glanz, was suspended for regularly arranging feasts of roast beef, salmon, and chicken for a group of Orthodox Jewish inmates, as well as a 60-person bar mitzvah for an inmate's son. Later, it was reported that Glanz had satellite trucks park outside of the Tombs so an inmate could watch a relative's wedding in Israel on the jail's television. (Glanz was eventually charged and convicted in 2013 for defrauding the feds of public housing subsidies.)
In 2010, a chaplain at the Tombs was arrested for smuggling in three razor blades and a pair of scissors. This March, according to a pending lawsuit, a doctor at the Tombs allegedly told an inmate to throw away his finger in the trash after it was accidentally severed by an electronic door. In May, a 19-year veteran CO was arrested, according to the Daily News, for smuggling in "cell phones, tobacco and lighters, in addition to nine grams of crack and three ounces of marijuana." The plot reportedly involved an inmate and two of the inmate's as well as two relatives.
And then there's the guy who, in June, filed a lawsuit claiming that he became impotent because a shady doctor failed to treat his six-day-long erection back in 2011. Earlier this month, that man won a $750,000 settlement from the city.
Despite all of this, if you search in recent DOC or Department of Investigation (DOI)—the official city watchdog—press releases or plans, you wouldn't know the Tombs even existed. The facility is merely a footnote in last year's report on Rikers released by the feds, and when I first inquired about the Tombs via email, a DOC spokesperson responded by asking me if I had seen the latest anti-violence action plan for Rikers Island.
No current correction officers were willing to speak for this story. Under DOC rules, officers are not legally allowed to talk to media without authorization, and requests and calls to the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, as well as its head, Norman Seabrook—who is reportedly facing a federal probe for alleged kickbacks—went unanswered.
One of the main problems consistently cited by critics of the Tombs is the declining state of oversight. As it stands, four agencies generally monitor living conditions in city jails: the NYC Board of Correction, the New York State Commission on Correction, the New York City Department of Investigation, and the DOC's own internal investigations division.
"The one thing I do hear is that the management has continuously deteriorated over the years," the former high-ranking DOC official told me. "People in the management never would've been managing years ago, from wardens on down."
Of course, critics say it's telling that it took the feds and media outlets like the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Village Voice to reveal the brutality on Rikers, rather than the agencies whose job it is to keep an eye the city's jails. As Stanley Richards told me after he was confirmed as a BOC member, "The report that came out of the DOJ on Rikers... that should've come out of the board!"
Another pressure point has been the Prisoners Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. The organization has filed a series of class action lawsuits against the city over poor hygiene, excessive force, mental health, and outrageous wait times for arraignments in the Tombs-connected court pens—which, several former inmates told me, can still last beyond the legally mandated 24 hours. Along with the feds at the DOJ, the Legal Aid Society just won a major settlement against the city, which will lead to new federal oversight at Rikers, as well as reinforced rules, surveillance, and body cameras.
In 2006 testimony to the City Council, John Boston, director of the Prisoners Rights Project, stressed the advantages of jails inside boroughs: Their location means inmates don't need to be transported as far when going to court, and it allows prisoners to be closer to their family members and attorneys.
Boston said his organization receives a steady flow of complaints from inmates about violence, medical attention, and unprofessional behavior in all city jails. So he wasn't surprised about stories of mayhem downtown.
"In the New York City jail system, there's nothing particularly special about the Tombs," he told me. "I don't find it too coincidental that you've heard these stories, because it's part of a vile and dangerous jail system."
"It's all the same population, and same staff [as Rikers]," Boston added.
In recent years, New York gang violence has exploded, contributing to a rise in shootings in the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said. His administration's efforts have targeted visitors to city jails like Rikers who have gang associations, and a 34-hour partial lockdown on the island in March reportedly stemmed from gang-related violence. And according to the New York Times, all city jails—not just Rikers—were locked down as recently as late last month.
That gang activity helps explain why complaints provided to the Legal Aid Society are confidential, Boston told me. He argued that fear of reprisal is what prevents inmates from talking to reporters. "There is a serious threat of retaliation within the borough jails," he said. "They would be... foolish to talk to you."
When asked about the Tombs, Diane Struzzi, the director of communications for the Department of Investigation, pointed me to the aforementioned arrests of the 19-year veteran CO, an inmate, and other individuals by the DOI and the Manhattan District Attorney in early June. "DOI does not comment on pending investigations but has been, and continues, to examine the significant issues affecting the City jails, including assaults and false reports and contraband smuggling, among others," she said in an email.
In a statement to VICE, a DOC spokesperson emailed, "Commissioner [Joseph] Ponte's 14-point anti-violence initiative is creating a culture of safety at all DOC facilities. DOC has added security cameras, reformed entrance procedures to stem the flow of contraband, increased inmate educational opportunities to reduce idleness, and is developing crisis intervention teams to respond to incidents more quickly. Meaningful reform takes time, and we are confident that our reforms are leading to a safer DOC."
Citing DOC data, the spokesperson indicated that the Tombs is "less violent on average than the rest of DOC." However, uses of force are up 15 percent between December 2014 and May 2015, compared to the same period a year before. Those incidents resulting in any kind of injury, the spokesperson added, are down 7 percent, reflecting a citywide trend where uses of force are up 26 percent since January but those resulting in injury have dropped 5 percent. The spokesperson failed to provide any information on specific incidents or allegations of violence, and said that the DOC was unable to provide stats on violence by year.
When Stanley Richards met the BOC's field representative for the borough houses in early June, the Manhattan Detention Complex wasn't listed among the "the darkest," which is to say those marked by heavy gang violence and abusive COs. He has heard, however, that there have been a number of significant transfers of high-security inmates from the Tombs to Rikers lately.
Richards said a lack of transparency could help explain why these stories, whether intentionally or unintentionally, haven't gotten more exposure.
"The borough houses are out of sight, out of mind, for the most part," he told me. "The [DOC] Commissioner doesn't visit them as often as he'd visit the island. So yes, there's a very real possibility that the borough houses are filled with violence and it's not reported up. It's managed on a very local level."
As for how to rein in excesses at city jails beyond Rikers, "It has to be two directions," Martin argued. "It has to be bottom-up, with COs thinking differently about their jobs, having a different understanding and role and being rewarded, but doing the kind of things that we say we care about. And then top-down, as in holding people accountable and setting that culture."
He added, "I don't see either of those things happening."
So as city officials struggle to overhaul Rikers, former inmates at the Tombs hope they don't forget the jail that sits just a few blocks from City Hall—one that, to them anyway, has been too violent for too long.
"You can't not see it when you're walking by," Cadeem Gibbs told me. "But when you're on the other side of those walls, you have no idea what's going on."
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