• This website includes dozens of videos, hundreds of essays, and thousands of drawings created over the past twenty years. Search to learn more about the history of buildings, places, prisons, Newark, New York City, and my PhD research on spatial inequality.

  • Or scroll down for the latest publications.

Civil Rights Rebellion in the Essex County Jail

Season 13, Episode 6 of the series Abandoned Engineering
Streamed June 2024 in Britain, July 2024 in America

A film crew visits and explores the decaying remains of old Essex County Jail in New Jersey, a facility that became a powder keg of injustice that was set to explode in the 1960s Newark rebellions. Learn more about this historic building in our digital exhibit and the oral history video project to remember the hundreds who suffered in this space.
In every episode since 2016, the channel features three abandoned buildings. Each building is selected for its international significance, for important events that took place there, for its aesthetics, for its cultural importance, or the way this site motivates us to rethink and remember otherwise invisible histories of tragedy and pain. For this year’s season, the old Essex County Jail was one of just 24 sites selected from around the world. Other featured sites in past seasons include: parts of the Berlin Wall and Chernobyl, forts built for the Allied landing at D-Day, as well as dozens of equally important but less visited historic buildings and ruins.
Content and inspiration for this documentary grew from my Columbia University undergraduate senior thesis project about this jail, as well as my Cambridge University’s Master’s thesis about the American architecture of solitary confinement. Based on seeing my senior thesis project and reading master’s thesis online, the film crew contacted me about adapting this research for television. I was happy to provide them an interview, all my primary sources from the Newark Public Library, as well as suggested interviews with community leaders Ras Baraka and Fredrica Bey about the carceral state.
For British audiences, view the full series here on SkyTV.
For U.S. audiences, view the full series here on AppleTV. The series is also being syndicated and translated into 20+ languages for international audiences.

 

Launch digital exhibit about the carceral state in Newark.

.

Setting Up Sex Offenders for Failure

How the intersection of law and city planning exposes sex offenders to longer prison sentences

Published to the AGORA: Issue 18, 2023-24
The Urban Planning and Design Journal at the University of Michigan

.

Abstract:

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.

.

Article:

Download article as PDF / open in new window >

.

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to dissertation advisers Dan O’Flaherty for his research on homelessness and Mary Gallagher for her advice on case law. This essay was originally written for Heather Ann Thompson’s fall 2023 PhD seminar on The American Carceral State. Most of all, thank you to editor Jessie Williams for her patient and insightful line edits.

“Where Evil Dwells” at Newark’s Old Essex County Jail

As originally published in The Newarker, December 2020

 

Photo by Madeline Berry

“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.

Read More

.

Democracy’s Prison Problem

How much does the existence of democracy depend on depriving some of its people of the benefits of democracy?

.

.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

– Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, 1865

.

In 1865, the United States government revised the Constitution to make slavery illegal. Six little words, however, change the whole meaning of the sentence: Forced confinement is illegal “except as a punishment for crime.” These six words hint at a larger flaw in a document that opens with high words about liberty and justice. The existence of democracy depends on depriving some of its people of the benefits of democracy.
As of 2020, the number of Americans in jails, prisons, and out on parole after prison is just over three million. That is, at least one percent of America’s population is at this point incarcerated. Also one third of Americans have a criminal record, meaning that they have been in jail or prison at some time. This is a permanent stain and barrier to existing in society as a full citizen; prisoners and many former prisoners cannot vote.
The most common conclusion from these facts is that America keeps too many people locked up. Changes to the legal system are needed. But what if the problem is deeper than anything that small reform can solve? What if the problem strikes to the core of this country’s founding?

Read More

.

Architecture of Redemption?

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

.

.

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

.

Abstract

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.

.

Click here to read

Opens in new window as PDF

.

Acknowledgments

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.

.

Related Projects

.

Digital Reconstruction
of Eastern State: 1836-1877

Digital Reconstruction
of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Exhibit on Prison Design
Research begun before MPhil

.

 

Eastern State Penitentiary: Decorative Fortress

Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at the University of Cambridge

.

Presentation

Paper delivered 6 March 2020 at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture
As part of my Master’s thesis in Architecture and Urban Studies

 

.

.

 

Digital Reconstruction

Created in SketchUp. Based on original drawings and plans of the prison.
All measurements are accurate to reality.

.

With ambient music from Freesound

.

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

.

Computer Model

Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.

.

.

Research Paper

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.

.

Acknowledgements

I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.

.

Continue reading paper.

Opens in new window as PDF file.

.

.

Related Projects

Master’s thesis on this prison
Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Computer model of panopticon in virtual reality
Lecture on problems with the panopticon

What’s wrong with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon?

Animation and research as featured by Open Culture

.

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.

.

Related Projects

– Computer animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
View the panopticon in virtual reality
Explore about Eastern State Penitentiary, a building inspired by Bentham

Computer Model of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Created at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture
As part of my Master’s thesis in Architecture and Urban Studies, as featured by:
– Special Collections department at University College London
– Open Culture
– Tomorrow City
– Aeon: a world of ideas
.
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?
Explore Bentham’s panopticon in the animation above or in virtual reality below
based on Bentham’s drawings at University College London:

.

.

c.1791 plans of panopticon, drawn by architect Willey Reveley for Jeremy Bentham

Creative Commons image credit: Bentham MS Box 119a 121, UCL Special Collections

.

Panopticon: Theory vs. Reality

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.”

.

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.

.

.

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.

.

.

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.

.

.

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.

.

Related Projects

My computer model is available here in virtual reality.
Read my research on Eastern State Penitentiary, a radial prison descended from Bentham’s panopticon

.

Credits

Supervised by Max Sternberg at Cambridge, advised by Philip Schofield at UCL
The archives and publications of UCL special collections, Bentham MS Box 119a 121

Audio narration by Tamsin Morton
Audio credits from Freesound
panopticon interior ambiance
panopticon exterior ambiance
prison door closing
low-pitched bell sound
high-pitched bell sound

You may reuse content and images from this article, according to the Creative Commons license.

Exhibition Design for the Old Essex County Jail

Developed in collaboration with Newark Landmarks
and the master’s program in historic preservation at Columbia University

.

.

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.

.

Launch Virtual Exhibit Website

.

.

Related content

  1. Read my January 2021 article in The Newarker magazine.
  2. Read this July 2020 article from Jersey Digs
    about my exhibit and the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s proposal to reuse this jail site.
  3. Hear my September 2019 interview about this jail and exhibit from Pod & Market.
  4. Explore this jail as an interactive exhibit online.
  5. View this artwork as part of my short film from 2016 called Pictures of Newark.