Get our newsletter
Sometimes it seems like New York City’s largest jail was built to be a disaster. Constructed on a small island in the East River, under the flight path of LaGuardia Airport, the 82-year-old facility is low-lying and spread out. Ten squat detention centers spread across 400 acres, most of it landfill hauled by inmates during one of the jail’s taxpayer-funded expansions.
Beyond the slashings, beatings, violent deaths and brutal guards that have made Rikers infamous, the complex’s architecture also takes its toll on those who spend time there. According to an April 2017 report on improving criminal justice in New York City, the jail has such “antiquated design” that it undermines safety, and poor sight lines, bad acoustics and decaying facilities “provide multiple opportunities to fashion weapons.”
The view from the inside, to the extent there is one, makes you feel like you’re a million miles from Manhattan, which is to say a million miles from home.
And that’s the point. “Rikers is designed to break you down, and it’s really good at that,” says Khalil Cumberbatch, who served time there from 2003 to 2010. “By the time you go on to state prison, it feels like you’ve left the worst of the worst behind.”
The Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Today Cumberbatch is a trainings manager at JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society. The group’s executive director, Glenn Martin, is a leading voice in the campaign to close the massive, lethal and lawsuit-riddled Rikers complex and replace it with smaller, community-based jails.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has now put his weight behind that idea, endorsing a 10-year, $10.6 billion plan while warning that “it won’t be easy” to implement the numerous judicial reforms necessary to cut the city’s incarcerated population in half so that the remaining 5,000 people may be divvied up among new and rehabbed jails across the five boroughs.
NIMBYism also seems like an inevitable obstacle. Because, of course, nobody wants a jail in their backyard.
Jails don’t actually have to be bad neighbors: Good planning and design can address commonly cited concerns like crime, traffic and reduced real estate values. Nor do jails have to be horrific hellholes, either. Thoughtful architecture would not only ease community opposition to siting New York’s new facilities, but also, critically, create more rights-respecting institutions for the people forced to spend time there, 85 percent of whom have not yet been found guilty of any crime.
Scalpels seized at Rikers Island jail (City of New York Department of Investigation via AP)
New Yorkers tend to get riled up about undesirable infrastructure in their neighborhoods, whether it’s homeless shelters or bus terminals.
From 2009 to 2013, the residents of affluent Tribeca and SoHo were up in arms when the sanitation department said it would build a garage for garbage trucks in the area. They called the city to complain, enlisted local famous people like Mad Men’s John Slattery to talk to the press, and raised concerns about pedestrian safety, air quality, and environmental protection.
Today, the facility is up and running, and not only does it fit right in with the steel-and-glass look of the formerly industrial area, it’s actually a striking architectural creation.
Tribecans weren’t necessarily wrong to push back: In putting up such a fierce resistance, these well-heeled, well-connected residents managed to get themselves a much better version of the proposed project. Comparing Tribeca’s Gehry-esque salt storage structure with the 40-odd mostly open-air salt sheds that populate Brooklyn and the Bronx shows what the political power of elite pushback looks like.
In the end, Tribeca had to submit to the sanitation department one way or another, because of the “Fair Share Criteria,” a 1989 ordinance passed to “further the fair distribution of the burdens and benefits associated with City facilities, consistent with community needs for services and efficient and cost effective delivery of services.”
The same principle applies to closing Rikers. Though city officials are awfully quiet on the specifics of siting, civic centers in each of the five boroughs, where courthouses and other municipal offices are located, can surely predict what’s coming. And if a salt shed ruffles feathers, then imagine the sensibilities a jail can offend.
When the Brooklyn House of Detention, a towering mid-century behemoth, reopened on Atlantic Avenue in 2012 after nearly a decade closed, locals were outraged. In the years following a 2003 shuttering, Boerum Hill, located near downtown, had become a trendy and high-rent area. As Liz Robbins reported in The New York Times in 2012, “it may be the only city jail located down the block from a Barney’s Co-op and a Trader Joe’s.” Owners of $3.4 million townhouses fretted about property values; others expressed concerns about crime and parking.
The Brooklyn Detention Center facility, center, sits along Atlantic Avenue in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Five years out, those worries remain unfounded. The jail, which today houses 815 men, has an underground tunnel leading directly to the nearby criminal court on Schermerhorn Street, allowing inmates to be shuttled back and forth for court appearances by foot, minimizing jail-related traffic and pollution. Boerum Hill’s average house sales price has continued to rise, increasing from $1.16 million in January 2012 to $1.32 million in January 2017, according to real estate website Trulia.
There can even be perks to having a jail next door, like increased police presence on the street and more activity at night. David Condliffe, executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives and chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Rikers subcommittee, says that one Queens city council member was supportive of the Queens House of Detention potentially reopening because the area around the courthouse “has become a dead zone at night.”
Designing safer and better jails is not actually hard. “The best practices in jail design are the same as in any space designed to be humane: natural light, communal areas and green space,” says Todd Brown, a trained architect turned environmental psychologist.
Along with the architects Ken Ricci and Lisa Tsang, Brown submitted a proposal to the Van Alen Institute’s 2017 Justice in Design competition, which sought to envision what “healthier and more effective jails” than Rikers might look like; their concept went to the final round.
The winning design, which was released July 13 by Van Alen and its partners, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, envisions not jails but “Justice Hubs,” a “new model for detention in New York City.” Conceived by the Boston-based architecture firm NADAAA with insights from criminal justice experts and urban planners, these facilities promise to use design to “improve the jail experience in two ways: by providing dedicated spaces for a diversity of experiences … and by designing attractive and clean rooms that convey respect for people who are detained and corrections officers.”
“Conceptually, this is a new typology,” says Dan Gallagher, the multidisciplinary team’s lead architect, who notes that beyond the obvious (multistory construction, using materials and architecture that fit into the surrounding neighborhood), there is really “no precedent” for creating a building that both serves the particular needs of the people on the inside and so purposefully engages with the community by offering services of use to the general public, like parking or cultural programming.
Exterior design will necessarily vary from borough to borough, depending on the local context, but all interior spaces should include sunlight, air, and activity spaces, provide clear sight lines, and manage sensory stimulation by considering “sight, smell, sounds, and safety for all users,” the Justice in Design final report says.
A prototype for a humane jail from the A More Just New York City report (Credit: NADAAA)
“There are psychological implications of being in a box with little or no exposure to the natural environment,” Brown says. “In an urban environment, where you have to go vertical, that also gives people views of the city, helping to prepare inmates for reentry into society and reducing their sense of isolation.” Thoughtful fenestration also makes jails look more like other structures in the neighborhood — less concrete fortress, more apartment building — reducing the “eyesore factor” that NIMBYs are sure to invoke.
Khalil Cumberbatch recalls that while awaiting a hearing in Manhattan Detention Center, a municipal jail adjacent to the Manhattan Criminal Court, he didn’t feel as isolated as one does in Rikers. Despite its nickname of the Tombs, the facility is comprised of two modern towers. They’re boxy and plain, yes, but they have windows. From within the walls of the jail, Cumberbatch could “see out onto the city from a bird’s-eye view,” whereas from Rikers, he says, “you feel so far away.” Access to green space as well as murals and paintings would also do wonders for the soul, Cumberbatch says; the gray concrete of Rikers, for its part, “serve[s] a particular function — to make sure you know you’re institutionalized.”
If those all sound like things you’d like in your office building, that’s because people in jail aren’t any different than other people, reminds Raphael Sperry, a California-based architect who directs the organization Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. “Landscaped, open space is critical to any human’s well-being.”
Scale is also a key question in jail design. Facilities should be small enough that guards and administrators know everyone’s name — 100 to 300 people, perhaps fewer. “A large scale breaks down opportunities for relationships between people and dilutes accountability,” Sperry says.
Smaller jails would also better blend in with the neighborhood, fitting in rather than hulking over nearby buildings — design again alleviating neighborhood concerns about living near a facility most people don’t want to get to know. Rather than be insulated from the neighborhoods in which they’re situated, by architecture and culture, New York’s new Justice Hubs would be built to be integrated.
In a statement released with the Van Alen report, Mark-Viverito described the community-based hub concept as “consistent with the recommendations” released in April by the city’s Independent Commission. “We will continue to look for ways to enact meaningful reforms like these, which will help restore some normalcy and dignity to the lives of incarcerated New Yorkers—the clear majority of whom are young men of color incarcerated solely because they are too poor to afford bail,” she said. The Speaker did not respond to a followup question on specifics of how the proposed Justice Hub could factor into the city’s plans.
Raphael Sperry, however, says he’d never design a jail or a place to incarcerate more people. In fact, he doesn’t think any architect should. Since 2004, he has been urging architects to boycott the design of prisons and jails in the United States, which incarcerate, stigmatize, abuse and execute disproportionate numbers of black and brown men. (Not incidentally, 88 percent of Rikers’ population is people of color.)
“There’s no such thing as a humane box,” says DeAnna Van Buren, an architect who leads the nonprofit Designing Justice + Designing Spaces. “Making boxes prettier is not going to detract from the realities of mass incarceration. Green spaces, outdoor spaces, natural gardens — these are all design features that will help” improve the experience of incarcerated people, she says, “but they’re still trapped in a racist system.”
Nor can design change the training and behavior of Rikers corrections officers, who have been accused of raping, beating and humiliating the people in their custody. In early July, the Bronx district attorney convened a grand jury to investigate claims that Rikers guards had forced female visitors to be strip-searched. “If these new jails are still going to be run by New York department of corrections, then they will be just as bad as Rikers,” explains Sperry. “You could design the Sistine Chapel, and there’d be blood on the floor.”
Van Buren has dedicated her career to building “restorative environments” like peacekeeping centers and housing for foster-age youth. Instead of talking about jail design as a solution, she thinks designers and policymakers must examine other architectural opportunities outside of the criminal justice system. These spaces, she says, have the potential to be transformative, while more jails, no matter how nicely designed, are simply “not going to solve the problem.”
“If these new jails are still going to be run by New York department of corrections, then they will be just as bad as Rikers. You could design the Sistine Chapel, and there’d be blood on the floor.”
“I’m interested in the four or five other building types mentioned but barely discussed in the [A More Just New York City] report: drop-off centers for low-level offenders and people with mental illness, drug treatment centers, supportive housing,” she says. “What will those places look like? Why are no reporters asking about that? It’s crazy-making.”
Sperry, Van Buren and many prison abolitionists believe that New York could siphon out of the system far more than 5,000 people if it got serious about alternatives to incarceration for offenders who are mentally ill, homeless, struggling with addiction, or too poor to make bail. If they’re right, the city may not need to build new jails to close Rikers. Indeed, doing so would actually perpetuate a superbly unjust system. Once built, prisons just beg to be used.
Other progressive reformers contend that even with a profoundly remodeled judicial system — which, failing revolution, seems unlikely in this incarceration nation, which locks people up at a higher rate than any other country in the world — there will still be people, albeit in much-diminished numbers, who truly need to be separated from society. In that sense, New York has an immediate moral and constitutional obligation to improve its dismaying jails.
Jails are different than prisons. Because they house local people awaiting trial rather than incarcerate those serving sentences, they are places of constant movement, with short-term stays and high resident turnover.
According to the A More Just New York City report, every day the New York City Department of Correction moves more than 1,000 individuals to and from court, largely by bus, a process that cost the city $31 million in 2016.
Rikers Island is accessible by only a single bridge. In normal traffic, it takes an hour to reach courts in Brooklyn or Manhattan, 30 to 40 minutes to Queens and the Bronx, and 90 minutes to Staten Island — not to mention the return trip. This constant shuffling causes delays in hearings and trials, slowing the pace of justice.
As one Manhattan assistant district attorney remarked, “Sometimes defendants never make it to court. We don’t really know why — maybe it’s a lockdown on Rikers, maybe it’s rush hour. When the client cannot be produced, the judge will adjourn the case for a day or a week or a couple weeks.”
Defendents travel from across all five boroughs to Rikers. (Credit: Van Alen Institute)
To lessen transportation expenses and speed up judicial proceedings, the new community jails are to be located in civic centers across the five boroughs, close to courthouses and to public transportation. Taking prisoners to court on foot also addresses a major community concern, which is that jails bring idling buses, traffic and pollution. Transit-rich central locations will also improve inmates’ access to families, friends and attorneys — key support systems for pre-trial detainees, who have the right to be housed in humane facilities and to meet with counsel.
So what does “humane” actually look like? Oft-vaunted model facilities, from the new college campus-esque women’s jail in San Diego, to Norway’s “radically humane” prisons, wouldn’t make sense in dense, vertical New York City. The Justice in Design report shows general renderings of modern, glass-facade structures, but details will have to wait until the city takes a major leap forward and identifies specific building sites.
One example of how different jail could be is not a jail at all. It’s The Castle, a 1904 Catholic school turned transitional housing facility, on 140th Street in West Harlem. Opened in 2003 by the nonprofit Fortune Society, the handsome stone building (and modern annex) accepts only homeless, recently released prisoners who’ve been convicted of violent crimes.
“Most reentry programs would reject these people because of their violent history,” says JoAnne Page, president and CEO of the Fortune Society. Many Castle residents have served decades in prison for murder or armed robbery. “Here, they do fine. We find that most people live up or down to the environment they are in — with some exceptions.”
There are no window bars on The Castle, no armed guards, no locked gates. The 60-bed building, which houses men, women and LGBT people together, is sunny and fresh, with soft surfaces, bright colors and clean sight lines down hallways and in public spaces. It has both individual studios (on floors designated for stable, longer-term tenants), and shared rooms with two to six residents (on the emergency intake floor, which receives those new to the building). Chairs are not bolted to the floor. Kitchens are equipped with knives. Bikes are left unlocked in hallways.
The residents are “the same people who were at Rikers just a few years ago,” Sperry says. “And yet the building is not under assault.”
In fact, The Castle is quite safe (there are cameras everywhere), and it’s designed to stay that way. Everything about this place “says that you’re a human not an animal,” says Page. Because of its small size, the staff knows everyone’s name, so they’re able to identify trouble before it starts. (“I would prefer never to go above 50 or 70 people in one facility,” Page says.) She also credits the center’s success to the fact that many Fortune Society staffers are themselves formerly incarcerated, which “removes the ‘us versus them’ mentality of prison.”
But mostly, The Castle works on hope. Everyone living there has committed to non-violence and “to working on themselves,” says Page. “Hope is our great motivating factor.” At mandatory meetings every Thursday evening, residents gather to discuss challenges, achievements and shared concerns. In a recent session, attendees grappled with how New York’s aggressive, overcrowded subway cars are a trigger for those fresh from lock-up, and celebrated holding down a job.
Jails, which are, by their very nature, traumatizing places, would be hard-pressed to run on hope. But if New York’s new community jails embody the Van Alen Institute’s vision of them as places that aim not to dehumanize people but to help them prepare for a better future, then they could foster hope, and the built environment has a role to play in that. “It’s an intangible thing, to feel safe,” says Soulieo Kirby, a Fortune Society alumnus now studying at Baruch College, looking around the cheery lounge. “It’s cultural. The Castle has created a culture of being human.”
Jails are as much a part of New York’s communities as bodegas or anything else, Cumberbatch says. Rather than wishing them away, locals should keep them close, insist that they get done better, and then keep an eye out to make sure everything’s OK — you know, like good neighbors do.
Catesby Holmes is a writer and news editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in Slate, Travel + Leisure, and WIRED, among other outlets.