© Heba Malaeb

In Defense of Ugliness:
the Jail Across the Street

When walking on State Street through Boerum Hill, past old brownstones interspersed with shiny new high-rise condominiums, one wouldn’t expect to look up and encounter the hulking gloom of the Brooklyn House of Detention. At the base of the building, there is a Citi Bike station, and painted on the walls ringing the facility is a 90-foot mural by the public art group Groundswell. You would not think this beautiful wall is meant to cordon off a detention complex, especially not when it is situated so near the glitzy hotels and houses surrounding it. Celebrities have even taken Instagram selfies with the mural as a backdrop, seemingly unaware of the dark cloud of a structure that sprouts from the pleasant sidewalk plaza. But looking a little more carefully at the ground-floor level reveals some clues: a bail-bonds office is located on the opposite corner, next to a hotel whose restaurant is named (quite crassly) “Misdemeanor”.

But the Brooklyn House of Detention is much more than a rude intruder on the landscape. Built in 1957, this uncomfortable neighbor has been around for longer than most occupants of the area. Having closed in 2003, it reopened in 2012 after extensive renovations, to the dismay of newly-moved-in affluent families. A men’s jail, it has a capacity of 815 inmates, most of whom are either awaiting processing before being sent to federal prisons, or awaiting trial in Brooklyn and Staten Island courts. While some have praised the presence of the jail in the area for affording locals easier access to their incarcerated loved ones (by sparing them a long trip to Rikers Island), others have been vocal against the expansions planned for the facility, citing the risk of inhumane treatment associated with prison overpopulation, not to mention the systemic racism that is the very fuel of incarceration in the U.S.

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of the problematic (and downright depressing) reality of imprisonment in America. From the criminalization of poverty, to racist stop-and-frisk practices, to solitary confinement, one balks at the horrors all-too-commonly perpetrated by the prison-industrial complex. Jails are just one actor in this complex system of incarceration that developed largely from seeds of institutional racism. Acclaimed documentaries like 13th and Time: The Kalief Browder Story illuminate this history and reality, and their very real, human consequences. Angela Davis, in 2003, wrote the book “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, which analyzes current incarceration practices and their origins, calling for alternatives to imprisonment. Angela Davis and other prison abolitionists call for restorative justice, which requires bringing together all parties affected by a crime, i.e. perpetrator and victim, to collectively repair the harm caused by it, as well as address the circumstances that caused it.

Indeed, one can even find a response to the American justice system painted directly on the exterior walls of the Brooklyn House of Detention; the mural by Groundswell. Groundswell is a collective that has produced a number of other community-based murals addressing institutional racism as it relates to policing and imprisonment. These murals, perhaps the most direct way to engage people on this topic, are good for education, but their beauty should never be a distraction from the issues at hand. Which is why it is a blessing the BHoD is as ugly as it is — it starkly contrasts with the hopeful beauty of the mural. The black netting covering the windows, added in the past 5 years, makes it a real eye-sore, and very hard to ignore. This helps force it into common consciousness as a representative and concrete example of what it means to live in the U.S.A. today: ignoring the reality that right across the street people are living in inhumane conditions. One wonders, from the street level, at the looming structure: with those closed-off windows, can the inmates imagine I am out here on Atlantic Avenue, shopping in fancy antique stores and eating delicious Middle Eastern food? Can I ever imagine their reality on the other side of the wall? The presence of this ugly titan taints the experience of the street, as it should.

Design plays many roles in shaping public perception and public experience, and the design of buildings plays perhaps the largest of roles, albeit a subtle one. If the BHoD were designed to be more “beautiful”, like the brutalist prison in downtown Chicago, perhaps we would be more concerned with its “good design” than we would be with its sinister function. And if it were designed to be more congruous with its surroundings, we might never look up at it at all. This might have been once true for the BHoD, were it not for the black netting covering the windows (and, of course, the sign on the side of the building that reveals it to be a jail). Rather than design the ugliness away, we should be forced to confront that prisons are ugly institutions merely by virtue (or vice) of their existence.

Yes, the dark mesh windows of the BHoD, more so than the design of the building, are what give the game away. They visually betray the purpose of the structure, while highlighting the inhumanity of jails. Boerum Hill, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, has always been architecturally beautiful: the brownstones have been around since the 1800s, and most of these buildings wear “protected by historical status” plaques like armor. The BHoD might as well have a similar protective plaque, as it depicts a different kind of historical significance: the United States’s obsession with locking people up. Until this perverse preservation is ceded for a future of real justice, a future in which the prisons are redesigned from the inside-out — reformed, repurposed, and removed entirely — let this monument continue to be as ugly, confrontational, and uncomfortable as possible.

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