In Our Backyard: Building Restorative Practice, Not Cages

Sites for protest


Sue Jeong Ka

“Modern facilities would replace the outdated jails of today. These new facilities would be integrated into the look and feel of the neighborhood. Their interiors would be built with state-of-the-art design for a more humane, safer environment that promotes better mental health and medical services. Their exteriors would include retail and other amenities to serve the neighborhood.”
Beyond Rikers: Towards a Borough Based Jail System, published by the City of New York, 2018

In 2019, the City of New York released a final new jail plan that included a “new, modified or renovated” facility to replace the existing Manhattan Detention Complex at 125 White Street in Chinatown.[1] Designed by Van Alen Institute, a New York City-based architecture organization, the proposed facility sparked a storm of controversy. It resembled other high-rise buildings, which had been the cause of serious arguments about gentrification in the neighborhood. Merging the aesthetics of corporate gentrification with the criminal (in)justice system only renews the history of modernization of colonialism, the prison industrial complex.

Since its beginning, Manhattan Detention Complex, known as the Tombs, was a symbolic monument that mirrors a local history of colonialism and the carceral state. The first Tombs were constructed on the Collect Pond reservoir, which was possessed by the Indigenous Native American Lenni Lepane until European colonizers took over. In 1817, they decided to fill it in due to severe pollution created by commercial enterprises, and built the Tombs on the reclaimed land to imprison criminals, including members of the world-wide notorious Irish immigrants, Five Points Gang. After its first construction, the Tombs building was demolished and replaced multiple times with new architectural styles—from Egyptian Revival to French Revivalist to Art Deco. Each time it was replaced, it was bigger and taller.

Chinatown residents who have lived here for generations know by heart the history of colonial architecture repeats. That is the reason why most residents of Chinatown reacted furiously to the Mayor’s plan for the new jail construction on White Street. Some of the local residents who manage mixed-use buildings right across from the jail argued that “De Blasio forever wants to be known as the ‘mayor who closed Rikers,’ and he’s willing to trample over members of this community”; and “the process employed by the Mayor’s office to achieve this goal focuses on only half the equation—the people inside the jail. It ignores the other half of the equation—the people in the surrounding community.”[2]

We should now question why local residents, specifically immigrants, believe that the City is less concerned about them than the incarcerated. Is the new jail building a real problem? Whether or not the correctional facilities on Rikers Island will be closed, we must take responsibility for making the criminal (in)justice system accountably visible to everyone, in order to bring about change and move towards demodernization, decolonization, and prison abolition.


[1]  The City of New York, Borough Based Jail System, 2019,

[2]  Allen Arthur, What Does Chinatown Hate About the Plan to Close Rikers? Almost Everything. Documented, September 25, 2018,