When Nevzat Helvaci, president of the Turkish Human Rights Association, visited New York City in December 1988, he asked to visit a US prison. “There is no reason why these visits should be always one-sided, with foreign monitors visiting Turkish prisons,” he commented. “We also want to visit and observe their facilities.” Helvaci and Emil Galip Sandalci, head of the THRA’s Istanbul branch, came as guests of Human Rights Watch, to attend ceremonies held on the fortieth anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Since there are no prisons in or near Manhattan, that left only two detention centers — the Tombs (350 inmates) and Rikers Island (12,000 inmates). New York corrections officials told us that a visit to Rikers required at least a week’s notice, so we went to the Tombs, officially the Metropolitan Correctional Facility. The current facility was built in the 1980s to replace an infamous windowless structure that earned the institution its nickname. Two corrections officer “escorts” met our group at the entrance, a small stuffy area reeking of “industrial strength” cleaner. At the doors leading to the detention areas, a large sign warns against firearms beyond that point and a large poster has a fatherly black police officer wagging his finger and admonishing that “rape is no game.” As one goes through the remotely controlled doors, an invisible stamp marks the hands of all entrants and is “read” by a blue light further along.

As at Rikers, the great majority of prisoners here are awaiting trial or sentencing. Our escorts explain that inmates here have as many as 18 previous offenses. Minor offenders or those with a shorter record, they say, are rarely incarcerated unless they skip bail. We stop at the visitation area, and then go to the roof, where a basketball game is in progress. The players give us only a momentary glance. The roof is covered with thick wiring to prevent helicopter landings — such an attempt occurred a few years earlier. Later we visit the prison library on the seventh floor, containing legal books and journals. The only gripe we hear during our visit is when an inmate at the library complains that for days there has been no salt at meals.

In fact, the discipline and quiet of the inmates is nothing short of amazing — not only for those of us used to New York but also for Helvaci, who asks detailed questions about discipline and punishment.

Helvaci is impressed with what we have seen, but increasingly suspicious that the institution is far from typical. The threat hanging over these exceptionally well-behaved young men becomes clearer as we continue our tour into the cell blocks. The doors are controlled from a room enclosed in thick glass and wire. The eerie quiet and calm continues as we enter. Most inmates are engrossed in a television cartoon. The block appears spotless, though the tidiness of individual cells varies. Our escorts tell us that a minimal level is enforced.

I approach the one inmate who appears to be working, sweeping the floors. He glances up only as I approach him, though women “civilians” must be far from a common sight within the wards. He won’t tell what his crime is, but says that he is here because he violated his parole by leaving New York state. He is “lucky to be here,” he says, and willing to “take anything rather than going to Rikers” — the prison/detention center we could not visit. There “things are really bad,” he says, adding that at Rikers one is always worried about getting “knifed or worse.” “At least here,” he says, “you can lock yourself in your room.” The worst punishment, it seems, and the one which keeps inmates in line in the Tombs, is a transfer to Rikers.

Helvaci repeats his request to visit Rikers, but the authorities again bring up the matter of a week’s notice. Helvaci observes on the way back to his hotel that all the prisoners were black and Hispanic. The only other blacks he met during their whirlwind tour of Washington and New York, he says, were African and Caribbean human rights activists.

How to cite this article:

Sebnem Atiyas "A Visit to the Tombs," Middle East Report 160 (September/October 1989).

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