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Redesigning New York’s Most Notorious Jail

Meet the “Justice Hub.”

The Rikers Island Correctional Facility, a complex of 10 jails and about 10,000 detainees located northeast of LaGuardia Airport, is a longstanding political flashpoint in New York City. For decades, civic leaders have debated shuttering the facility because of its notoriously corrupt reputation, brutal mistreatment of detainees, and inhumane conditions. Critics say it’s impossible to close, citing insufficient infrastructure–but proponents are pressing forward, with Mayor Bill De Blasio supporting a move to close the jail.

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Today, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform—a multi-disciplinary group of experts convened by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito—released Justice In Design, a report that envisions an alternative to a single, centralized jail. It details how community-based jails, dubbed “Justice Hubs,” might function in an urban context to replace Rikers. Developed in partnership with the nonprofit urban think tank Van Alen Institute, the design-based findings are a follow up to a March report that recommended a system of borough-based jails to replace Rikers, among other reforms to the city’s criminal justice system.

[Photo: Cameron Blaylock]
At every level, the criminal justice system in America is catastrophically corrupt. Policy reinforces mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. There is a culture of violence deeply embedded in the penal system, not to mention case after case documenting correctional officers raping inmates, using excessive force, and violating civil rights. Fights routinely break out between inmates. The bail system is grossly inequitable and favors the rich. Meanwhile, the courts are congested and pretrial detainees are left to languish in dangerous, inhumane conditions. This is happening at the national and local level, in prisons and in jails.

Considering how deep and pervasive the problems are, can better design help? Or are architects out of their depth? “Fundamental to creating a more just system is the need for modernized jail facilities that reflect our commitment to safety and humanity for inmates and staff, and improved public safety outcomes through rehabilitation,” former Chief Judge and Chairman of the Independent Commission Jonathan Lippman argues in a news release. “It’s been a core component of the commission’s work from day one.”

Here’s how the Commission envisions using urban design and architecture to help reform New York City’s jail system.

[Image: NADAAA]

The Tangled Web Of Problems With Centralized Jails

Released in March 2017, the Commission’s first report concluded that for criminal justice in New York, Rikers Island needs to close and the city’s jails move to a decentralized model. This new report outlines what that might look like in an urban context.

“Now, all of the jail infrastructure is on Rikers—it’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s a challenge for folks who are incarcerated or getting due process, but it’s also a hardship for visitors and officers,” Jessica Lax, director of competitions at the Van Alen, says.

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To explore a better solution, the Van Alen created the Justice In Design team, which is composed of architects Dan Gallagher and Nader Tehrani of NADAAA; urbanism expert Karen Kubey; John Jay School of Criminal Justice professors Susan Opotow (also a social psychologist) and Jayne Mooney (also a sociologist); and Susan Gottesfeld, executive vice president of the Osborne Association, a non-profit that assists former prisoners with re-entry. Together, they led community workshops in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens to get a better grasp on the realities of Rikers’ problems and what they’d like a community jail to embody spatially.

Physical isolation poses a number of problems: it’s difficult for lawyers and families to visit detainees and it’s expensive and inefficient to transport detainees from the jails to courts (the annual cost for shuttle buses is $25 million, according to an Intercept story on the jail’s conditions). This also impacts people at Rikers–employees, detainees, lawyers, policymakers, etc.–psychologically. 75% of the jails’ 10,000 detainees have not been convicted of a crime and are being held because they cannot make bail. But the architecture and culture of Rikers does not treat them as innocent until proven guilty.

“From the architectural side, it’s just holding place, it’s just about detainment,” Gallagher tells Co.Design. “There’s nothing about quality of life. The primary drivers through history have been about security, containment, and just making sure people ‘do their time’ and don’t cause problems anywhere else.”

Gallagher and the team wanted to figure out how they might create a new jail typology that is “healthy, rehabilitative, and respectful,” as their report states, and that involves the social services needed for successful reentry. Could a jail be a positive contribution to the community it’s in? This gave rise to a new concept for jails: the “Justice Hub.”

[Image: NADAAA]

Infrastructure That Helps End A Culture Of Violence

The Justice Hub model is loosely based on Bjarke Ingels Group’s 40th Precinct Police Station in the Bronx and Studio Gang’s Polis Station, both of which propose turning police stations into community centers in an attempt to lessen the divide between law enforcement and civilians.

“It’s not just about building a single building, but it’s about engaging spaces in a particular area that can actually work with the programs affiliated with a jail, whether it’s outreach programs or medical or a day care center or parking,” Gallagher says.

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Justice Hubs–which would put courts, jails, bail services, and social services all in close proximity–aspire to achieve the following, according to the report:

  1. Reduced time and resources needed for individuals to move to and from courts.
  2. Modern facilities that are safe on the inside and reflect the look and feel of the neighborhood on the outside.
  3. Increased accountability and community connection.
  4. Improved court efficiency that eases strain on inmates and staff.
  5. More effective and efficient programming and services that 
address mental health and criminal justice issues that ultimately 
lower the jail population
  6. The creation of a civic resource, integrated into the neighborhood 
providing communities with much needed services and facilities.

The buildings in the report’s diagrams look almost like office buildings. They aren’t enclosed in monolithic windowless walls, or sheathed in barbed wire; they have glass on the ground floor and landscaping around them. They aren’t closed off to the public, but encourage activities like community board meetings.

“What we did was try to make spaces that were geared toward spaces of convention, whether that’s where you live, where you eat, or where you interact with other people,” Gallagher says. “How can these buildings not just be a high wall and this foreboding nature, but really be something that we as a city and a populous understand is part of civic programming.”

The thinking is that if jails embody architecture that is less fortress-like and less hostile, the people inside them are more at ease.

“Well-designed spaces have positive behavioral impacts: they can ease tensions for and between inmates and staff, and also convey and foster respect,” the report concludes. “Design can improve the jail experience in two ways: by providing dedicated spaces for a diversity of experiences and constructive programming, and by designing attractive and clean rooms that convey respect for people who are detained and for correction of cers and staff. Thus, our design principles are centered on creating normative living environments rather than communicating distrust and neglect.”

When Gallagher and his team spoke with participants in the community workshops–which included business owners, residents, families of formerly incarcerated individuals, and former corrections officers–the majority of their concerns weren’t about having a jail be so close to their neighborhood, but about how that jail would fit in with the existing cityscape.

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In Brooklyn, the community meeting was held nearby an existing facility with a fortress-like design, sited on a block with little street activity. Gallagher says the comments centered around making a more beautiful building, and finding ways to accommodate parking since police and corrections officers use most of the street spaces.

“It had very little to do with security or fear of a breakout with mayhem that ensues,” Gallagher says. “It was all about making a building that worked better and contextually within a particular part of the city.”

Since the actual building will depend on the urban context–for example, Staten Island is a less dense and shorter borough than Manhattan–the guidelines offer more general suggestions about how the buildings could be configured.

[Image: NADAAA]

Inside, the team recommends details like access to natural light and air, and acoustic insulation that reduces noise and creates calmer interiors. They also suggest comfortable furniture and soothing colors in the day-use areas and visitor areas, along with rooftop outdoor space.

Some of the biggest changes compared to old jail architecture is removing physical barriers between officers and detainees, like guard stations behind plexiglass. The thinking here is that it creates a more conversational, one-on-one dynamic between the groups. “It becomes less of this ‘other world’ and more about this world which actually has a relevance to the world in which other people share,” Gallagher says.

Another big change? Investing in break and recreation areas for jail employees that feel comfortable and welcoming.

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“Those working inside–uniformed officers and civilians–often describe ‘idling at 60’ as their constant state of vigilance and tension,” the report states. “A greater diversity of living and working areas for correction officers and other staff will positively affect the physical and emotional health of those working in jails.”

[Image: NADAAA]

Can Architecture Be A Catalyst For Criminal Justice Reform?

The Justice Hubs concept represents just the beginning of a conversation at the community level about decentralizing Rikers, and it faces a steep road.

For starters, the Justice In Design report does present guidelines on how a Justice Hub might fit into a neighborhood and best-practices on how humane detention centers could be designed–but it doesn’t present a concrete plan of action on building them. That would involve zoning changes, community-level approval, a land acquisition plan, and funding. It also did not explore potential locations beyond the assumed proximity to borough courthouses, as siting wasn’t part of the scope. Regardless of where the city thinks Justice Hubs should go, they’re sure to face NIMBY opposition.

The report’s scope also did not include the expected cost for one of these jails, who would fund them, who would potentially build them, or how ownership would work. Most new infrastructure in New York is part of a public-private partnership, like the Link NYC WiFi kiosks and Citi Bike. Real estate development is a significant part of the decentralization plan and the first report goes into depth about what could be built on the 440-acre island if the jails close, calling out new housing and potentially expanding LaGuardia. While the commission is independent and states that it’s “not taking any funding from government or political entities,” that doesn’t make it immune to the same economic pressures and opportunism facing all new construction in the city.

Lax believes there are two key things that need to happen for Justice Hubs to work. “One is getting those [detainee] numbers down and that’s a larger policy question,” she says. “The other is informing the public on the benefits [decentralized jails] can have: they can be assets, they can fit into neighborhoods, and they can and be safe and useful.”

Will New Yorkers buy the Justice In Design’s rosy, kumbayah vision of a jail as the linchpin of a thriving community? I’m skeptical. The team is optimistic, though. “I think that there is a strong possibility that this initiative can be carried through on multiple political administrations with backing, as required, to get them done,” Gallagher says. “It’s not going to be a two- or three- or five-year thing–this is a 10-year project.”

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Beyond the physical and legal hurdles, there are also glaring cultural ones. Without substantial reform within how jails are operated, administered, and staffed, there’s a risk of Rikers’ toxic culture migrating into new facilities. It’s one thing to make a “non-hostile” environment, but quite another to remove hostility and violence from human beings. Society paints detainees as people who did something wrong and deserve punishment, and in turn that influences the dynamic between corrections officers who are accustomed to using violence and intimidation.

[Photo: Cameron Blaylock]
If reform doesn’t happen, packaging jails in slick buildings that could be mistaken for Class-A offices would just further mask the mass incarceration problem. The buildings would be normalized in plain sight, in a pretty shell–not on a bleak, remote island–but still with little transparency on what’s happening on the floors where detainees are housed.

Reform will require assessing why people end up in Rikers and remain there in the first place–challenges that sit at the intersection of law enforcement, correctional policy, public health, and social services. This all falls under the purview of multiple government agencies and is a logistical and jurisdictional knot. The Justice Hubs also call for a mixed-use design, which presents a challenge on figuring out what community resources are most needed–the report proposes libraries, community art galleries, vocational training–and who will operate and fund that part of the programming.

Mayor De Blasio has outlined some strategies to reduce the jail population including programs to divert pre-trial individuals with behavioral health problems, making it easier for families to pay bail, and alternatives to jail sentences less than 30 days (like community service). The city is also reassessing how it handles misdemeanor offenses, like drug possession and fare evasion, to reduce the number of people who are arrested and go to jail.

Better interior design and decentralized jails don’t directly tackle the root of mass incarceration’s systemic injustices, but the problem is so vast that it requires a multi-faceted approach. And the Van Alen thinks design is a mechanism that can be effective, since it involves dissecting and addressing multiple factors at once.

“Nothing is one dimensional anymore,” Lax says. “There are a lot of challenges in the criminal justice system–psychological, emotional, and financial impacts. If we’re only thinking about one lens, we’re not addressing the problem.”

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Achieving as broad of an overhaul as the Justice in Design pitch proposes isn’t insurmountable–but it involves reaching consensus with dozens of stakeholders. In today’s political climate that seems almost impossible. Gallagher and his team are counting on compassion and understanding–two more traits that also are easier to conjure up hypothetically, but more difficult in reality.

“Our deep desire is to make clear within [the Justice Hub] narrative that what we’re doing has a civic initiative and responsibility,” Gallagher says. “It’s important for everyone involved, not necessarily people detained on Rikers. [The jail] impacts us all: the person who’s detained, their loved ones, the workers–everyone has a stake in making this thing better. This has to be a civic understanding–it’s not just something that ‘happens over there.'”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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