Setting up sex offenders to re-offend
and end up back in prison after release
Written for “The American Carceral State”
PhD research seminar with Prof. Heather Ann Thompson
The area where sex offenders on parole are restricted from living, a 1,000-foot radius from any school
1. Did the crime, did the time… but still doing time?
2. How much do residency requirements restrict housing options in New York City?
3. How much are sex offenders on the registry an actual risk to public safety?
4. Where do we go from here? At least four public policy solutions:
. Reduce the residency requirement from 1,000 feet to 100 feet from a school.
. Eliminate site-specific parole requirements.
. Distinguish between virtual space and physical space. They are not the same.
. In an internet age, fight crimes where they actually happen, not where we think they happen.
Defendants classified by the State as “level three sex offenders,” however, must first assure the State that they will not reside within 1,000 feet of any school. In New York City, this is no easy task, and the difficulties of finding a compliant residence can result in defendants serving additional time in prison past the expiration of their sentences.
Courts, law enforcement agencies, and scholars all have acknowledged that residency restrictions do not reduce recidivism and may actually increase the risk of reoffending.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor objects to sex offender registration requirements In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Angel Ortiz v. Queensboro Correctional Facility, February 22, 2022, (source for ruling)
In August 2020, as the pandemic ripped across prisons and homeless shelters, New York State struggled to find temporary accommodation for inmates being released from prison. Keeping them in prison beyond the length of their sentences is illegal. Putting them in homeless shelters would expose them to disease in dormitories, locked-down spaces at night, and fast food cafeterias. Many times, these shelters resembled on the outside the very prisons they had just left on the inside.
In response, the state started renting temporary accommodation in the range of hotels across the city, many left vacant by the pandemic-related temporary decline in tourism. A few inmates – some of them sex offenders – were placed at a hotel in the Upper West Side near Central Park, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. In response, The New York Post blasted their photos across the internet, along with images of one offender urinating. One neighborhood mom warned reporters at the P.S. 87 playground:
“Look, we’re a progressive-minded community, and we tend to be sympathetic to the homeless. [….] But with sex offenders, draw the line.” (source)
Our nation’s laws for sex offenders, although designed to protect the public, often have the opposite effect: increasing the chance sex offenders will be re-arrested and re-convicted for new crimes. The core of the problem is not that public safety rules, like Megan’s Law, are too weak. The problem is that these laws are written too strongly and too powerfully that they have the reverse effect: increasing the chances that sex offenders will commit new crimes.
There are many problems with sex offender laws: too weak in areas they should be stronger; too strong in areas where they should be more flexible. But today I will examine just one aspect of the sex offender registry (the home address requirement) and how it affects one place (New York City).
This analysis of New York City points to concrete and better ways to protect public safety than the current system: ways that reforming Megan’s Law will increase public safety.
1. Did the crime, did the time… but still doing time?
Jory Smith was supposed to be free. It was August 2020. He had finished his five-year sentence as a sex offender at the Marcy Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Upstate New York. But there was one condition for release: He had to find a place to live.
Three years later – three years beyond the date his prison sentence ended – he is still in prison. In New York State, approximately eight percent of sex offenders are still kept locked in prison after the end of their prison sentences. However, the U.S. Constitution explicitly states that there cannot be “cruel or unusual punishments” and the length of the prison sentence must match the severity of the crime. (source) If judge, jury, and prosecution ruled that a crime merits, say, a five-year punishment, then the punishment cannot extend a day over five years. He is not alone. Angel Ortiz was similarly kept locked up for two years longer than the planned data of his release, prompting a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court and Justice Sotomayor. The case claimed that imprisonment without conviction, or beyond the date of planned release, violates the constitutional right to habeas corpus. (source)
Why are hundreds of people in New York State and thousands of people nationally kept in prison for longer than their prison sentences, in effect locked up for longer than judge, jury, and prosecution ruled was necessary?
The “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act” of 1994 (more commonly known as Megan’s Law) required each state to create a public database of sex offenders. Their names, birth dates, age, photos, convictions, home address, and all matter of other personal information were made public information. The goal was to inform the public –particularly teachers and concerned parents –of any sex offenders in their neighborhood, to help them identify these people and keep their children away from them. You can search the database for New York State here or view all sex offenders within New York City on this interactive map.
The Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) of 1995 built on Megan’s Law and added further restrictions. It requires that sex offenders – for the length of time they are on parole – cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school or place children frequent. For most released inmates, the period of parole lasts one to four years, rarely more than five years. During this time, they must register their address with law enforcement and must check in regularly with a parole officer. However, for sex offenders, the length of time they spend under supervision longer. For level 1 and 2 sex offenders, the registration period – during which they must share name and home address – is 10 years. For level 3 of the most serious offenders, this parole period is 30 years to life with permanent residency restrictions. (source)
Since then, some New York legislators further strengthened Megan’s Law and reporting requirements with over one hundred separate amendments. One amendment proposed doubling parole from ten to twenty years; another proposed registration for life. A law introduced March 2023 from Republican State Senator Mario Mattera representing the wealthy south shore of Long Island proposed restricting all sex offenders from entering a public bus or coming within one thousand feet of a school bus stop. (source) Most public bus stops also double as school bus stops, and most sex offenders recently released are low-income individuals without cars who must rely on public transit to commute to work. In effect, this law also bars sex offenders from living anywhere near public transit. For instance, in New York City – the most transit dependent and transit rich city in the nation – about 99% of the city’s surface area is within one thousand feet of a school bus stop. In effect, this proposed law would bar sex offenders from living anywhere in New York City for the length of time on parole: ten years for some and a lifetime for others.
However, New York’s laws are less strict than other states. In Florida, sex offenders cannot go to playgrounds, public parks, shopping malls, and – in effect – any place where there might be any number of children. Florida’s registry laws are the strictest in the nation. These problems are not unique to New York. They are pervasive, and they are nationwide. The largest of these facilities is the so-called Coalinga State Hospital where, as of 2017, 941 sex offenders were imprisoned after serving their sentences. (source)
2. How much do residency requirements restrict housing options in New York City?
Drawing from NYC Open Data, I downloaded the point locations of all 1,700 public schools in the city, and the footprints of all 1,049,000 buildings in the city. The data on building footprints also lists the land use and number of residential units for each building. This gives an accurate picture of the available housing supply.
Drawing a 1,000-foot radius around each school – the area from which sex offenders are excluded – I identified the housing stock sex offenders on parole are barred from living. The map below shows the radius around each school. This leaves the areas between red circles as the only places sex offenders on parole are allowed to live.
Out of the approximately 3,644,000 housing units in 2021, the 1,000-foot limit excludes offenders from all but 100,000 units. That is, 97 percent of the entire city’s housing stock is off limits to sex offenders on parole. Further drill down the data, and the available housing supply is even less:
1) Of these 100,000 units, only 3,000 are available to rent at any one time, given the three percent vacancy rate.
2) Of these remaining 3,000 units, less than half charge monthly rents affordable to former inmates.
3) Add to this the fact that about 90 percent of landlords conduct criminal record background checks on tenants. According to New York State law, a landlord can refuse to rent to an apartment applicant because the tenant is on the sex offender registry.
About 97 percent of the entire city’s housing stock is off limits to sex offenders on parole.
The interactive map below draws a 1,000-foot radius around every public school building. Zoom in on individual locations to view the extent of areas where offenders cannot move. Click on dots to display school names and school districts. Not included are the city’s dozens of private schools and hundreds more private nurseries and daycares.
Median income in New York City is $35,000 in 2023. Median income of former sex offenders is well below that since an estimated 60 percent of sex offenders remain unemployed even three to five years after leaving prison. Compare the 60 percent unemployment rate among sex offenders vs. the five percent for general population. (source) By almost every definition of financial need, most are eligible for housing assistance. But further laws make offenders ineligible for public housing. As the New York City Housing Authority describes on its rental application: “A life-time registration results in a lifetime ban from public housing.” (source)
3. How much are sex offenders on the registry an actual risk to public safety?
Recidivism rates among non sex offenders:
Based on 1990s data and a sample size of 300,000 people from 15 states convicted for all crimes, about 67.5 percent are re-arrested within three years of release. Of this sample size, 51.8 percent return to prison within three years. However, there are many reasons they return to prison. About half (25.4%) return to prison for committing a new crime. The other half (26.4%) return to prison for an entirely nonviolent and purely technical violation of their parole. This includes failing a drug test, missing an appointment with a parole officer, failing to register a change of address, or driving without a license. (source)
Keep in mind that driving is advertised “as not a right, but a privilege” of living in America. That right can be revoked for reasons other than unsafe driving. Of those with suspended licenses, only 20 percent lost their license for drunk driving, reckless road behavior, serial car crashes, parking violations, or running a red light multiple times. The remaining 80 percent lost their license for reasons entirely unrelated, such as sex offender status, overdue court fines, or failure to make child support payments. Compound three factors here: 1) Sex offenders cannot live near schools, which are also incidentally the areas with best access to public transit. 2) Sex offenders need a job and have difficulty finding jobs. 3) If they, in effect, cannot live near public transit and must have a job, then they will have to drive to work. This traps sex offenders in a legal jeopardy: Remain unemployed but within the law. Or find a job that requires driving to work, but risk if caught a technical violation of parole and end up right back in prison as a repeat offender. Law abiding but unemployed vs. employed but breaking the law, simply for choosing to live near work and commute to work by car in a nation without public transit. Thousands of sex offenders are caught every day in this legal limbo of biased laws governing space and place. This situation could become worse if sex offenders are banned from living within 1,000 feet of any school bus stop, in effect banned from using public mass transit.
The data also reveals that released prisoners with the lowest re-arrest rates were those in prison for homicide (40.7%), rape (46.0%), “other sexual assaults” like pedophilia (41.4%), and driving under the influence (51.5%). As a category, even with recidivism rates as high as they are, sex offenders still have the lowest re-arrest rates. (source)
Recidivism rates among sex offenders:
A 1994 study of some 10,000 sex offenders reveals that 3.5 percent were re-convicted for a sex crime within three years, or about 1 in 25 people. Of this sample size, 24 percent were re-convicted for an offense of any kind during the follow-up period, or about one in four people. This supports the conclusion that sex offenders are not statistically more dangerous than other criminal classes. (source)
So, by nature, sex offenders as a category are less likely to commit violent offenses in the future than other groups convicted for different crimes. Keeping offenders on the registry because they might commit different crimes of a non-sexual nature is not legally or logically justified. By the same logic of possible recidivism, all other criminal groups with higher rates of recidivism than sex offenders should also be required to have their names, identity, and addresses posted to a public registry like Megan’s Law. Released prisoners with the highest re-arrest rates are those originally convicted of robbery (70.2% re-arrest rate), burglary (74.0%), larceny (74.6%), motor vehicle theft, (78.8%), having or selling stolen property (77.4%), and having, selling, or using illegal weapons (70.2%). If these higher risk groups are not made to live out the rest of their lives on a public registry, then neither should sex offenders with their re-arrest rate for sex crimes at four percent.
Also keep in mind that New York’s registry includes people punished for statutory rape (for instance, an 18 year old having consensual sex with a 15 year old) and peripherally related crimes (for instance, public urination at a playground or having sex outdoors at a public beach near children). These crimes represent between five and ten percent of people on the sex offender registry. Surely, any law – no matter how precisely written to get the “bad apples” – will wrongfully convict a few people for youthful indiscretions and “stupid mistakes.”
How many innocent people is it worth convicting to get the truly evil people on the sex offender registry? This is a truly and uniquely difficult legal balance and legal test because child abuse is a uniquely dirty issue in our society, as it should be.
4. Where do we go from here?
At least four public policy solutions:
1) Reduce the residency requirement from 1,000 feet to 100 feet from a school. This has at least four benefits:
Increases the range of available apartments for sex offenders on parole by several hundred percent, from 100,000 apartments to over one million apartments in New York City.
Reduces the number of inmates who remain incarcerated for months, sometimes years, after the end of their sentence because they cannot find housing in the city. Restores to thousands of Americans the Constitutional right of habeas corpus.
Reduces the economic costs of paying for homeless shelters and prisons, two of the only places sex offenders are allowed to live if they cannot meet residency requirements. The $10,000 per person per year cost of a shelter and the $40,000 per inmate per year of a prison are public funds that should alternatively be spent on victim compensation. Therefore revising residency requirements reduces public funds spent on offenders and increases the funds available to help victims and fund recovery programs.
Allows inmates on parole to live with their parents, relatives, friends, and legal guardians. Under the current arrangement, if the parents and relatives live less than 1,000 feet from a school, then the offender cannot live with them, even if these relatives have a spare bedroom and will legally vouch that the offender will not be a public safety threat. Inmates released to their families have lower rates of re-arrest, higher rates of employment, and lower rates of homelessness.
2) Eliminate site-specific parole requirements.
In the current arrangement, inmates are released back to the community where they were arrested. And they are expected to keep in touch with a specific parole officer at a specific place in that neighborhood. The problem is that half of New York State’s population lives in New York City, which is also the part of the state that is 1) the most densely populated, 2) home to the greatest concentration of schools, and 3) most expensive to live. These parole requirements, although they attempt to help and counsel former inmates, also spatially lock them in place, in what is effectively a prison without bars.
Eliminating site-specific parole requirements would allow a former inmate to search for job and housing anywhere in the state, or ideally the nation, in the thousands of places that are less densely populated and have cheaper housing. Reinstating their driver’s license – provided their original conviction was not for reckless driving while committing a sex crime – would also allow them to own a car, move more freely, live in a more remote location, and commute longer distances to work at the highest paid job available to them within driving distance.
3) Distinguish between virtual space and physical space. They are not the same.
Forty years ago, there was only physical space and only the physical world to communicate. A law on living away from schools might have made some sense. Today, there is a virtual world that is not bounded by space, and irrelevant to any 1,000-foot distance from schools. The opportunity for offenders to contact victims extends beyond 1,000 feet to the virtual world. This points to the need for continued restrictions on how sex offenders use the internet, but looser requirements on the physical space they inhabit. Megan’s Law was written for a world without the internet. We need new laws and reformed laws updated for the pace of technological change.
4) In an internet age, fight crimes where they actually happen, not where we think they happen.
We live in a society rich in urban legends and common misconceptions: stranger danger, clowns in paneled vans, razor blades in Halloween apples, the hooded rapist in a dark alley at night, the urban black youth with a hoodie and backpack (Kalief Browder). These images and dozens of others – many of them racialized images black men – pervade the general public’s image of who is dangerous and who commits the most crimes.
The reality is often different.
About 93 percent of sex crimes and rapes are committed by people the victim knows personally, usually a close friend or family member. The risk that a sex offender will assault a family member and someone in their household is greater than the risk they will assault someone they do not know at the school 1,000-feet away.
By comparison, there are fewer than two to three recorded cases of razor blades being hidden in Halloween apples, usually planted by family members for children in their family group. The social consequence of this stranger danger “bad apple” fear is low-level social distrust and the erosion of trust in neighbors. This is a small analogy, but multiply the effects of criminal profiling across society. Stigma – that is, our perceptions of what we think is dangerous – effect our views of anyone who is different from us: in social class, politics, and race as more likely to be violent than people we actually know. The result is societal-level distrust.
About 93 percent of sex crimes and rapes are committed by people the victim knows personally. The 1,000-foot residency requirement is not racial profiling, but it is spatial profiling.
The law assumes that someone is risky because of where they live, instead of who they are, and therefore pushes those judged risky to the spatial margins of society.
In a system where inmates are released to the society but made to live in certain neighborhoods, the result is the spatial concentration of risk in certain neighborhoods, specifically low-income and more likely to be majority-black neighborhoods. In the current system, majority-black neighborhoods already farther from public transit and public schools are more likely to become areas where sex offenders concentrate. We need to understand spatial racism as the effect of intersecting inequalities, where the same risks are concentrated and re-concentrated in the same neighborhoods least able to offer resistance. The fact that The New York Post complains about sex offenders living on the wealthy Upper West Side and quotes upper-class mothers to support their complaint says a lot. Low-income residents or residents in majority immigrant neighborhoods might have their own complaints about living near sex offenders, but rarely are their opinions given the time and visual real estate on the pages of The New York Post.
These urban legends and Megan’s Law in itself come from a noble place of good intentions. Seven-year-old Megan Kanka was murdered by an offender living next door, whose criminal history neighbors did not know. Moral outrages and moral panics at avoidable crimes often motivate overdue legal reforms.
But if we construct our legal system on whom we profile as sex offenders (stranger danger) instead of who is statistically more dangerous (friends and family) we risk writing laws with adverse unintended consequences for thousands of people. In the case of Megan’s Law and residency requirements, we have created a prison state that extends beyond the prison walls, extending the length of spatial incarceration in urban space well beyond the length of court mandated prison incarceration. This results in clear as day constitutional violations.
I would further argue that stranger danger fears – and laws that justify their existence on stranger danger fears – make victims less safe, not more. They make us more likely to suspect the black neighbor down the street than the creepy uncle who gets a blind trust pass at Thanksgiving.
“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850
When citizens convened in 1836 to incorporate Newark as a city, one of their first orders of business was to discuss the construction of a new jail. Four years earlier, they had set aside land for the new cemetery. The previous year, the old county courthouse and jail had burned down in one of the fires that periodically swept through early American towns of wood-frame homes. All traces of this old courthouse are now gone, except for the building’s basement dungeon where convicts were kept awaiting trial. Remnants of this dungeon are still visible in the dark crawlspace beneath the sanctuary of Grace Church on Broad Street.
This quiet village was already approaching 170 years old. Newark’s population numbered only 10,542 free white Americans, 6,000 Irish, 1,000 English and Scotch, 300 Germans and 358 free colored people in 1835. Within the span of a few months, in 1836, the town’s first two railroads linked Newark to points west and south; oil streetlights illuminated the town center; the first school system for poor children opened; and another fire swept through downtown. In the next few decades, the population would grow almost ten percent every year. Newark was fast becoming a city.
However, Newark remained in many ways a farming hamlet with Puritan roots. Since 1666, the annual town meetings had been held in the courthouse, the “Court Room at Moses Roff’s Taven,” or inside one of the lecture rooms of Old First Presbyterian Church near the corner of Broad and Market Streets. The sexton of Old First was, in fact, paid three dollars per year by the Town Committee “for cleaning the Lecture room of said Church.” The names of attending officials read like a list of street names from a modern Newark address book: Treat, Baldwin, Bruen, Pennington, Doremus, Halsey, Harrison, Frelinghuysen, etc. The lands they farmed and passed down through generations span much of present-day Essex County.
In the expanding town, it was no longer possible “to Farm let” the city’s debtors and poor to the lowest bidder, who in the years before the American Revolution paid £159 for the privilege. Nor was it possible to use fines as punishment for the most common public nuisances, which included escaped hogs and cattle roaming Newark’s dirt streets due to poorly maintained fences. The town records had noted few serious crimes like rape or murder in more than a century. Nonetheless, with waves of “rowdy” German and Irish immigrants soon to come, Newark needed a jail.
The city leaders looked around and settled on English-born architect John Haviland. Since immigrating to Philadelphia in 1815, Haviland designed many of the civic institutions for that city: the Franklin Institute for science, Old City Hall, churches, townhouses, and even parts of Independence Hall, where the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed. His most famous building, however, was Eastern State Penitentiary completed in 1829. At a cost of about $450,000, Eastern State was the largest and more expensive public works project yet built in America. Over half of Eastern State’s budget was spent on the decorative fortress appearance and perimeter wall, even though visitor Alexis de Tocqueville noted that this frightening appearance served no other purpose than to frighten passersby. Newarkers thought that Haviland – later known as the “jailor to the world” – was best equipped for their project.
Haviland’s Newark commission consisted of two parts. At the top of Market Street, where Gutzon Borglum’s Seated Lincoln statue now stands, he built a symmetrical courthouse out of local brownstone. Heavy columns modeled after Egyptian papyrus leaves buttressed either side of the entrance. Carved on the cornices were the stylized motifs of eagles with outstretched arms, a reference to Horus, the Egyptian god of pharaohs. The walls tapered inward as they went up, a subtle reference to the architecture of Egyptian tombs and temples. The irony of using architecture associated with polytheism and monarchy for a courthouse was probably lost on Newark’s Christian elected leaders.
The second part of Haviland’s commission was for the Essex County Jail at what is now 271-85 New Street. Located at the city edge, along the path of the newly built Morris Canal, the jail was soon wedged between farmland on one side and leather tanning industries on the other. Also built of locally quarried stone, the jail was surrounded by an eight-foot perimeter wall. The main façade facing the city displayed an image of comfortable gardens and domestic life. The two-story Warden’s House with a wood cupola above offered hilltop views of Newark and the distant meadowlands. Generations of jail wardens lived here with their wives and children. Passing through the garden, one entered the front parlor of the Warden’s House. The stairs up led to the family bedrooms. The back door led via a short hallway to the rows of brick cell blocks and dungeons.
In an agrarian republic, cities and urban life were seen as somehow dirty, alienating, and morally corrupt. Andrew Jackson, U.S. President when the Essex County Jail was being built, emphasized the frontier yeoman farmer and his family as the bedrock of American values and democracy. Newark’s older generation of Puritan founders and farmers observed the Sabbath, closed down businesses on this holy day, and chastised those found working. But in a city with immigrant groups who drank on the Sabbath and businesses that needed to remain open, Newark emphasized the need for the new civic institutions of schools, libraries, courthouses, public works projects, and jails to maintain tradition and social order. Indeed, in the Essex County Jail’s earliest decades, drunkenness and wife beating were among the two most common reasons men were held there. The State Temperance Society reported in 1836 that, of 517 people sent to jail, a little over twenty percent were charged with “beating and abusing their wives and children.” As part of their re-education, the better behaved of these inmates were invited to tend the warden’s garden and assist with food preparation in his kitchen. As the Newark Call reported as late as 1930: “The Essex County Jail reportedly has ‘one of the prettiest flower gardens in Newark,’ a hobby for Mr. and Mrs. Steadman, the warden and matron. A few ‘trusties’ among prisoners are rewarded for good behavior to work in the garden as recreation. Large flower beds and an extensive lawn form a bright spot outside the Warden’s House.” Warden Charles A. Steadman had the following to say to Essex County Jail inmates in a passage that reveals as much about him as it does about older attitudes toward crime and punishment:
My Friends: You and I are living under the same roof for a while.
You did not intend to come here. I did not invite you.
All of us make mistakes and at times do wrong. Perhaps you have. I know I have.
While we are together let us play fair with each other.
During your stay, your treatment will depend on your behavior. This must be remembered.
Let us both while together to live each other’s life. I’ll try to understand your position. You try to understand mine.
If we do this, we won’t have any misunderstanding.
My hope is that I will be a better man for having known you and that you will be none the worse for knowing me.
Few written records survive in the city archives or Newark Public Library from the jail’s early days. However, from what we do know, attitudes toward crime were evolving over the course of the nineteenth century. Some of America’s earliest colonial settlers were convicts deported from Britain. And in the tight-knit religious communities that dotted New England, lifetime banishment was a punishment for more severe crimes. But as America’s western frontier gradually filled out, nineteenth-century political leaders realized that if the guilty could not be banished, society would need to find means to re-educate and prepare them for eventual return to society. Prisons were built; courts were opened; inmates were set to labor in prison factories; and laws were updated to increase the number of crimes punishable with prison time. The Essex County Jail was no warehouse for the urban poor or ethnic minorities. The average length of confinement was only between 11 and 22 days during the entire 135 years the jail was in operation. This is in contrast to the backlog of cases in modern courts that can cause jail sentences to last months, even years. It was not until 1867 that troubled children were sent to the Jamesburg reformatory instead of the Essex County Jail, and it was not until 1873 that inmates with longer-term sentences were shipped to the purpose-built Essex County Penitentiary in Caldwell. Nonetheless, inmates ages eight to fifteen were locked up in the Essex County Jail until 1910 at the latest. Dozens of hangings also took place in the backyard of the Warden’s House until 1902 when executions were moved to Trenton State Prison, also built by Haviland. The practices of confinement in the Essex County Jail were changing alongside the larger city.
Two big changes came to the American prison system. The first was Prohibition. The second was the War on Drugs. The Essex County Jail’s operations responded to both. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founder of the women’s rights movement, announced at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention: “The tide of vice is swelling, and threatens the destruction of everything, and the battlements of righteousness are weak against the raging elements of sin and death.” For much of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, suffragists demanded the right to vote and the prohibition of alcohol. The two demands were intertwined in a perception that “demon rum” corrupted men, destabilized their families, and threatened the safety of their wives. Thus, in almost the same stroke of the legal pen in 1919, the federal government gave women the right to vote while barring men the right to drink. In the Prohibition age, the Essex County Jail’s average daily population shot up above 200 for the first time in history. The US might have ended Prohibition in 1933 with political lobbying from Newark brewers like Ballantine and Krueger. But the legal and institutional apparatuses to enforce prohibition remained in place. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Federal Bureau of Prisons were both founded in 1930, and their mission expanded in years after. At the same time, African-Americans, subject to lynching and white supremacy in the south, migrated north to cities like Newark. While the Essex County Jail detained 432 “colored” people per year in 1920, ten years later the number of “colored” people confined here annually was 3,258. In the century after Prohibition, the numbers of African-Americans confined in Newark never returned to pre-1920 levels.
Originally built for a city of less than 20,000, the Essex County Jail once employed the latest technology. The jail benefitted from radiator heating, electricity, internal plumbing, and even its own hospital and substation powered by Newark-built steam engines – all in an era before most Newark homes were equipped with these conveniences. As the growing bureaucracy of government found new and more efficient ways to keep people in cages, the jail remained a source of civic pride. Haviland’s Eastern State Penitentiary, in fact, became an attraction for thousands of annual tourists. The Essex County Jail never achieved this level of notoriety, but was part of the same era when prisons were often a source of civic pride. However, by 1926, Newark’s population and inmate numbers were beginning to outstrip what the old jail could handle. Once countryside, the site was now hemmed in on all sides by factories and tenements. From a simple plan for a Warden’s House and a single cellblock, the jail had expanded to at least fifteen buildings of various size, material, function, and design.
When Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs in 1971, the old Essex County Jail – originally designed for fewer than 100 inmates – held 432 on an average day. In a prophetic twist, as if foreshadowing future events, the jail closed the same year that the War on Drugs began. In almost every year after Nixon, the U.S. prison population has expanded. In some ways, Prohibition did not start in 1919, and nor did it end in 1933. The War on Drugs very much springs from the same place of moral righteousness that drove the War on Alcohol and before that, the various wars on vice that nineteenth-century puritanical Americans waged against socialists, anarchists, and immigrants.
Like Newark’s Puritan founding fathers, we are still a country that prefers rural and suburban living to urban life, chooses to decentralize power to the state and local level, and therefore requires a robust system of “law and order” to maintain power over increasingly diverse and immigrant urban areas. We are also a country that frames political issues like abortion and welfare with the coded language of “family values.” For conservative America and Fox News, the problem with our cities comes from a decline in Christianity, an increase in divorce, and welfare dependence that erodes work ethic. While Newark founders responded to fears of urban disorder through the old Essex County Jail, political leaders today have responded with the Essex County Correctional Facility on Doremus Avenue. This new facility’s razor wire perimeter fences and searchlight towers project an image of fear on the surrounding environment of sewer treatments plants, recycling centers, and heavy industry. It is now uncommon for prison administrators to live in the same place as their inmates.
Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying. It has briefly been used as a holding facility for drug offenders, as a stage set for a film about Malcolm X, and as the occasional home for people who prefer the jail’s secluded privacy to the invasive rules of local homeless shelters. Occasional fire and structural decay threaten the buildings that remain. Old inmate records scatter the floor. The decaying architecture is not picturesque or romantic in the way that Alcatraz surveys the bay of San Francisco. And the caved-in roof of the Warden’s House today offers more an image of horror than of comfortable domestic life and pretty gardens. The cells confined few famous people we know of; this was a place for untold stories of immigrants and the urban poor. Walking through these abandoned cellblocks raises questions about who lived here, and the stories these walls would tell if they could speak.
The ability to erect monuments reflects a larger ability to create a historical consensus about the meaning of the place, person, or event that is being remembered. Yet we as a country have not recognized the full human impact of generations of incarceration on minority and immigrant communities. There is no consensus on how best to make amends or reparations for past injustices. In the meantime, the decaying hulk of the old Essex County Jail has waited fifty years in a state of limbo for the day when Newark and this country are ready to confront the legacies of oppression. As a public health, governance, economic, and policing crisis whip this country into turmoil, and as the neighboring New Jersey Institute of Technology continues demolishing dozens of old buildings nearby, time for this old jail is running out.
Contradictions of Solitary Confinement
at Eastern State Penitentiary
Master’s thesis at the University of Cambridge: Department of Art History & Architecture
Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at Cambridge
View of cellblocks and guard tower
Eastern State Penitentiary guard tower
The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. A central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a centre towards which all gazes would be turned.
– Michel Foucault
Prison floor plan in 1836
In the contemporary imagination of prison, solitary confinement evokes images of neglect, torture, and loneliness, likely to culminate in insanity. However, the practice originated in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century as an enlightened approach and architectural mechanism for extracting feelings of redemption from convicts.
This research examines the design of Eastern State Penitentiary, built by English-born architect John Haviland from 1821 to 1829 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This case study explores the builders’ challenge of finding an architectural form suitable to the operations and moral ambitions of solitary confinement. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Haviland’s design inspired the design of over 300 prisons worldwide. With reference to primary sources and to philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, this research interrogates the problematic assumptions about architecture and human nature encoded in the form of solitary confinement practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary, which has wider implications for the study of surveillance architecture.
I am indebted to Max Sternberg for his attentive guidance throughout this research, and his support of my experience in providing undergraduate supervisions at Cambridge. I am grateful to Nick Simcik Arese for encouraging me to examine architecture as the product of labor relations and relationships between form and function. I am inspired by Alan Short’s lectures on architecture that criticize the beliefs in health and miasma theory. My research also benefits from co-course director Ronita Bardhan. Finally, this research is only possible through the superb digitized sources created by the staff of Philadelphia’s various archives and libraries.
I am particularly indebted to the guidance and friendship of Andrew E. Clark throughout my life.
The COVID-19 pandemic put me in a “solitary confinement state-of-mind,” allowing me to research prison architecture from a comfortable confinement of my own.
Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was reported as the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.
The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.
As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between cell blocks. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for my explanation.)
Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.
360° panoramic view from guard tower
Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.
Eastern State Penitentiary’s exterior resembles a medieval castle. More than a random choice, the qualities of Gothic attempt to reflect, or fall short of reflecting, the practices of detention and isolation within. Contrary to the claim often made about this structure that the appearance was supposed to strike fear into passerby, the use of Gothic is in many ways unexpected because of its untoward associations with darkness and torture, which the prison’s founders were working to abolish. It is therefore surprising that America’s largest and most modern prison should evoke the cruelties and injustices of the medieval period. The choice of Gothic appearance, and the vast funds expended on the external appearance few inmates would have seen, leads one to question the audience of viewers this penitentiary was intended for – the inmates within or the public at large?
This essay responds by analyzing what the Gothic style represented to the founders. The architectural evocation of cruelty and oppression was, in fact, not contradictory with the builders’ progressive intentions of reforming and educating inmates. This prison’s appearance complicates our understanding of confinement’s purpose in society. The two audiences of convicted inmates and tourist visitors would have received and experienced this prison differently, thereby arriving at alternative, even divergent, understandings of what this prison meant. More than an analysis of the architect John Haviland and of the building’s formal qualities in isolation, this essay situates this prison in the larger context of Philadelphia’s built environment.
I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.
Postmodernist thinkers, like Michel Foucault, interpret Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, invented c.1790, as a symbol for surveillance and the modern surveillance state.
This lecture is in two parts. I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. I then identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.
To say all in one word, it [the panopticon] will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.
– Jeremy Bentham
Since the 1790s, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon remains an influential building and representation of power relations. Yet no structure was ever built to the exact dimensions Bentham indicates in his panopticon letters. Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to construct an exact model in virtual reality. What would this building have looked like if it were built? Would it have been as all-seeing and all-powerful as Bentham claims?
Central to Bentham’s proposed building was a hierarchy of: (1) the principal guard and his family; (2) the assisting superintendents; and (3) the hundreds of inmates. The hierarchy between them mapped onto the building’s design. The panopticon thus became a spatial and visual representation of the prison’s power relations. As architectural historian Robin Evans describes: “Thus a hierarchy of three stages was designed for, a secular simile of God, angels and man.”
Spatial diagram of power relations
Obstructed view from ground floor
Author’s images from computer model
To his credit, Bentham recognized that an inspector on the ground floor could not see all inmates on the upper floors. The angle of view was too steep and obstructed by stairs and walkways. To this end, Bentham proposed that a covered inspection gallery be erected between every two floors of cells.
By proposing these three inspection galleries, Bentham addressed the problem of inspecting all inmates. However, he created a new problem: From no central point was it now be possible to see all activity, as the floor plans below show. The panoramic view below shows the superintendent’s actual field of view, from which he could see into no more than four complete cells at a time. The view from the center was not, in fact, all-seeing. Guards would have to walk a continuous circuit round-and-round, as if on a treadmill. They, too, are prisoners to the architecture.
Panopticon panorama from guard’s point of view
Section showing each guard’s cone of vision
Guard’s cone of vision
Guard’s walking circuit
Author’s images from computer model
The intervening stairwells and inspection corridors between the perimeter cells and the central tower might have allowed inspectors to see into the cells. Yet these same architectural features would also have impeded the inmates’ view toward the central rotunda. Bentham claimed this rotunda could become a chapel, and that inmates could hear the sermon and view the religious ceremonies without ever needing to leave their cells. The blinds, normally closed, could be opened up for viewing the chapel.
Rotunda with blinds closed
Rotunda with blinds opened
Bentham’s suggestion was problematic. The two cross sections above show that, although some of the inmates could see the chapel from their cells, most would be unable to do so.
In spite of all these obvious faults in panopticon design, Bentham still claimed that all inmates and activities were visible and controlled from a single central point. When the superintendent or visitor arrives, no sooner is he announced that “the whole scene opens instantaneously to his view,” Bentham wrote.
View from guard tower to cells: VISIBILITY
View from cells to guard tower: INVISIBILITY
Despite Bentham’s claims to have invented a perfect and all-powerful building, the real panopticon would have been flawed were it built as this data visualization helps illustrate. Although the circular form with central tower was chosen to facilitate easier surveillance, the realities and details of this design illustrate that constant surveillance was not possible. That the British public and Parliament rejected Bentham’s twenty year effort to build a real panopticon should be no surprise.
However flawed the architecture, Bentham remained ahead of his time. He envisioned an idealistic and rational, even utopian, surveillance society. Without the necessary (digital) technology to create this society, Bentham fell back on architecture to make this society possible. The failure of this architecture and its obvious shortcomings do not invalidate Bentham’s project. Instead, these flaws with architecture indicate that Bentham envisioned an institution and society that would only become possible through new technologies invented hundreds of years later.
Developed in collaboration with Newark Landmarks and the master’s program in historic preservation at Columbia University
Warden’s House c.1967
Warden’s House in 2019
Jail entrance gate
Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Expanded in stages since 1837, this jail is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building needs investment and a vision for transforming decay into a symbol of urban regeneration. As a youth in Newark, I explored and painted this jail, and therefore feel a personal investment in the history of this place. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail.
In spring 2018, a graduate studio at Columbia University’s master’s in historic preservation program documented this structure. Eleven students and two architects recorded the jail’s condition, context, and history. Each student developed a reuse proposal for a museum, public park, housing, or prisoner re-entry and education center. By proposing eleven alternatives, the project transformed a narrative of confinement into a story of regeneration.
Inspired by this academic project and seeking to share it with a larger audience, I and Zemin Zhang proposed to transform the results of this studio into a larger dialogue about the purpose of incarceration. With $15,000 funding from Newark Landmarks, I translated Columbia’s work into an exhibition. I am grateful to Anne Englot and Liz Del Tufo for their help securing space and funding. Over spring 2019, I collaborated with Ellen Quinn and a team at New Jersey City University to design the exhibit panels and to create the corresponding texts and graphics. The opening was held in May 2019, and is recorded here.
My curator work required translating an academic project into an exhibit with language, graphics, and content accessible to the public. Columbia examined the jail’s architecture and produced numerous measured drawings of the site, but they did not examine social history. As the curator, I shifted the exhibit’s focus from architecture to the jail’s social history – to use the jail as a tool through which to examine Newark’s history of incarceration. As a result, much of my work required supplementing Columbia’s content with additional primary sources – newspaper clippings, prison records, and an oral history project – that tell the human story behind these bars. I worked with local journalist Guy Sterling to interview former jail guards and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka about his father’s experience incarcerated here during the 1967 civil unrest. The exhibit allowed viewers to hear first-hand accounts of prison life and to view what the Essex County Jail looked like in its heyday from the 1920s to 1960s. Rutgers-Newark organized seminars connected to the jail exhibit on the topic of incarceration in America, and what practical steps can be taken to change the effects of the growth of incarceration.
The finished exhibit was on display from May 15 through September 27, 2019. The exhibit makes the case for preserving the buildings and integrating them into the redevelopment of the surrounding area. The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where several thousand people viewed it per week, historians can build support for the jail’s reuse. Over the next year, an architecture studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture and Design is conducting further site studies. Before any work begins, the next immediate step is to remove all debris, trim destructive foliage, and secure the site from trespassers. These actions will buy time while the city government and the other stakeholders determine the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.
My interest in prisons drew me to this project. This jail’s architect was John Haviland, who was a disciple of prison reformers John Howard and Jeremy Bentham. In my MPhil thesis research about Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, I developed my exhibit research by looking at the social and historical context of John Haviland and early prisons. As I describe, Eastern State began as a semi-utopian project in the 1830s but devolved by the 1960s into a tool of control social and a symbol of urban unrest.
The old Essex Country Jail sits forlorn and abandoned amidst desolate parking lots and lifeless prefab boxes. In the so-called University Heights neighborhood, the jail is testimony to the past. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, this 1837 structure is one of the oldest jails in America and the oldest civic structure in the city. Abandoned for over fifty years, no successful preservation efforts have materialized.
The urban jungle of junk trees, vines, and garbage conquers the old fortress. The warden’s garden that zealous prisoners once pruned and weeded is now overrun with nature. Used syringes line the cell-block floors. Not a single window is unbroken. Not a single wall is straight or strong. The rigid geometry that defined this urban castle is now blanketed in decay.
Yet, this fortress of old is still a home. A trail of homeless squeeze through the rusted barbed wire fencing. They carry with them their few odd valuables, cans to be recycled or shopping bags of discarded clothes. Every night, they sleep in the very cells their luckless brethren slept in decades before. Every day, they wander city streets in search of donations, food, and work. The physical prison of brute force and searchlights has evolved into the no less oppressive prison of poverty. Both prisons, new and old, are refuges for the luckless. As its occupants have changed, so has the prison. Both are ghosts. Both are vanishing.