On February 4, the Brooklyn Detention Complex (formerly the Brooklyn House of Detention) held an open house for 400 members of the local community. As visitors, we were instructed that cellphones, video cameras, and electronic devices were not permitted, and I complied. But here’s what I would’ve photographed had cameras been allowed:


The smiling guard at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Boerum Place who gestured with her white gloves to the visitors’ entrance ramp.

The black banner that three people on the sidewalk were folding up that said, “Welcome to the Prison Society.”

The bank of gray lockers in the vestibule.

The rows of conjoined molded plastic chairs in the waiting room.

The grid of tables with protruding round metal seats in the visitor’s center.

The two heavily iced sheet cakes—one edged in pink, the other blue—that were cut into squares. The open house was from 10 to 1. I arrived at 11:30 and hardly anyone had had any cake, so you could still make out the words “Welcome to the Brooklyn Detention Complex.”

The mural of multicolored fish on the ceiling of the visitor center.

The tall man who eagerly unpacked an enormous camera and lens and was politely instructed to leave.

The short officer who described the visitor screening process as “not dissimilar to what you experience when going through airport security.” There were about 20 of us, another group of 20 just ahead, and another staggered behind.

The palm-sized PBA (personal body alarm) the officer held up and assured us that guards wear at all times.

The guy with a soul patch and glasses, who asked, “But what if somebody rips it off you?”

The officer who stepped forward and explained that the 759 inmates who would be detained in the building were “low classifications—not the types to fight. There are not going to be a lot of incidents.” “How long are the inmates held here?” I asked. “The average time from arraignment to trial is 57 days,” the officer said.

The thick glossy gray paint on the moldings around the elevators and doorframes.

The guard with glasses and a soft voice who led us up a stairwell to the kitchen on the next floor.

The metal slab doors and blue and white signs that read, “GP Freezer.” “Halal/Kosher Freezer,” “GP Refrigerator,” “Halal/Kosher Refrigerator.”

“Hobart” on the industrial mixer.

The stacked Cambro hot liquid dispensers.

The UPC sticker still on the brand new rubber trash can.

The metal drain in the floor.

The Liberty brand hand-soap dispenser.

The gleaming red sprinkler pipes overhead in the hallway as we walked up another flight of stairs to the sample cell block.

Through the grid of white bars, the black rubber-soled shoes at the foot of the bed in one of the sample cells. The plastic-wrapped green plastic mug. The plastic-wrapped travel-sized toothbrush. The plastic-wrapped travel-sized toothbrush. The tightly rolled white towel.

The guard who told us that no one shares a cell. “In the winter, the inmates are allowed as many blankets as they want to stay warm. And in the summer, they are allowed as many sheets as they want to stay cool,” she told us. “They cannot see out the windows from their cell.” From where I was standing, in the corridor, I could see out. I could see gray satellite dishes on top of the buildings across Atlantic Avenue.

The blank TV mounted on the wall in the day room. “The TV plays regular channels,” the guard said. “Every channel is provided.”

The soul patch on the chin of the guy who laughed and said to the director of the health clinic, “So what is routine health care for someone who’s in here for 15, 30 or 60 days? Once they’re here, can they say, ‘hey, can I get my teeth cleaned?’”

The guy next to me who muttered, “They’re in here longer than that.”

The shiny badge hanging from the neck of the health clinic director, who said, “Prisoners are the only people in the country who are constitutionally guaranteed health care.”

The list of emergency numbers in Exam Room No. 4: Urgicare, Elmhurst, Bellevue.

The two women who look like they’re embracing in the poster for what to do for a person who is choking.

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LIZ BROWN's reviews and essays have appeared in Bookforum, Frieze Magazine, London Review of Books, Los Angeles Times, New York Times Book Review, and other publications. She teaches at the International Center of Photography/Bard College MFA Program in Advanced Photographic Studies. You can also find her at lizbrown.tumblr.com.

Gabrielle Bell drew the picture.

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