Just before Thanksgiving 18-year-old Nicholas Feliciano became the latest casualty of Rikers Island. Mr. Feliciano, who had a history of suicide attempts, got injured in a fight with other inmates and was transferred to a unit where guards watched for seven minutes — and did nothing — while he tried to kill himself. He ended up in a medically induced coma.
To countless New Yorkers, the news was only more confirmation why tearing down Rikers can’t happen soon enough. Its demolition has become a kind of collective cleaning of the slate, a moral reboot for the city, another rallying cry for the prison abolition movement. The plan now is to shutter Rikers by 2026 and replace it with four smaller jails, one in each borough save for Staten Island.
If we’re going to keep building jails, can new architecture help heal what ails the penal system? Jails are works of architecture, after all. Their designs, including how they present themselves on the street, give physical form to society’s shifting attitudes about justice.
Today Americans seem more divided than ever on most things but criminal justice reform is an issue that unites Charles Koch and Black Lives Matter. Although New York’s murder rate is up this year, in recent decades crime has significantly fallen. Along with much-debated bail reforms, decriminalization of some lesser offenses, speedier court adjudications and alternative supervision, the city is reducing incarceration. Back in 1991, at the peak of the crack epidemic, city jails housed more than 21,000 inmates. The jail population has dropped to 6,700. The four new jails would accommodate 3,300 detainees.
Unlike prisons, jails house those arrested, presumed innocent and still awaiting trial or serving short sentences. Increasingly, jails and prisons have become the country’s de facto mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities. Some 43 percent of New York’s current inmates receive mental health services, according to data from Correctional Health Services.
The principle behind the new plan is that, thoughtfully designed and humanely staffed, borough-based jails should make life safer for detainees and staff, help mitigate distrust between targeted, vulnerable communities and authorities, and streamline criminal cases by bringing detainees closer to the courts, not to mention to families.
This isn’t a new concept. I grew up near the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood jail that occupied an art-filled, Art Deco building next to Jefferson Market Courthouse, today the Jefferson Market Library. It was heralded as a model of justice reform when it opened during the 1930s.
But by the late 1960s, it had become squalid, overcrowded and violent. I can still hear the desperate pleas of inmates shouting through the windows as I walked home from school every day. Authorities finally tore the building down in the ’70s and moved the women to a new facility on Rikers.
Unfortunately, Rikers by then was itself becoming a virtual paramilitary compound. During the 1950s, it, too, had been a laboratory for rehabilitative practices under the leadership of an enlightened Department of Corrections commissioner named Anna Moscowitz Kross. Kross brought in clinicians and social workers and opened the first city public school in a jail (P.S. 616), for adolescent inmates.
But with rising crime and urban unrest, this all came undone a decade later as politicians pressed for tougher policing and mass arrests. “In very many ways,” notes Jarrod Shanahan, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Governors State University in Chicago, who has studied New York’s penal system, the city’s history of failed jails is a “history of progressive penology.”
That said, the city has little choice at this point but to try again. Unlike before, it can now build on historic declines in crime rates, and it has examples of safer, dignified jails and prisons to draw from in countries like Norway and Germany, where incarceration is regarded as punishment enough, guards are trained as social workers, and recidivism for those who have been convicted and imprisoned is generally lower than in the United States.
True, New York isn’t Hamburg. But its new jails can still be respectful and community-facing. They can be designed to fit architecturally into the fabric of the streets — not loom like giants over them — signaling that neighborhoods matter. Ground floor accommodations made for community assets like health clinics won’t mollify the jails’ opponents but can help mitigate the stigma of incarceration.
Criminal justice experts and architects also agree: Modern jails should be light and airy, with materials that reduce decibel levels and aren’t all cold and hard (there’s window glass strong enough to withstand an hour’s beating with a four-pound hammer). Environment cues behavior. Brutal and dehumanizing conditions brutalize and dehumanize both inmates and staff.
In Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, the city is presently imagining the new jails as skyscrapers rising near borough courthouses where detention complexes already exist. In the Bronx, the site is a police tow pound in the Mott Haven neighborhood; the courthouse is somewhere else.
Unsurprisingly, neighbors have protested. All four community boards voted the plan down. Residents in Mott Haven, which already has the Vernon C. Bain floating jail barge, are suing, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has joined opponents arguing the city should spend its billions on subsidized housing and mental health programs, not jails.
Nevertheless, the City Council approved the demolition of Rikers and construction of the borough jails in October. So the project is moving ahead.
Nobody today is arguing that buildings alone will repair the broken jail system, of course. A corrections department whose officers declined Mr. Feliciano aid clearly needs drastic reform, not just a nicer place to work.
But there’s a mountain of evidence that bad architecture contributes to a climate of cruelty, shame and alienation. I was in North Dakota recently and saw firsthand, at the Missouri River Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison there, the benefits of a more benevolently designed and run facility with no fences and transitional housing in converted trailers that allowed select inmates keys to individual rooms and the ability to cook their own meals. Both prisoners and guards told me that the physical layout was a powerful motivator for good behavior and rehabilitation.
At the state’s maximum security prison in Bismarck, by contrast, I saw how architecture conceived to isolate, subjugate and punish inmates undercut similar efforts by state officials and prison staff to inculcate a culture of reform.
I also visited San Quentin, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, where inmates and prison officials stressed how invaluable proximity was to educators, social workers, job training and family — how much it helped with rehabilitation, daily life and mental health.
Will New York’s new jails be places where visiting families feel welcome? Will the jails provide space for police officers and medical staff to train together? For detainees to confer with lawyers? For therapeutic assistance and recreation?
Outside as well as inside, will they be scaled to their surroundings, will the city be open to other sites and will the buildings architecturally represent, as borough landmarks, our civic ideals and values?
“Why not?” asked Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, when we spoke the other day. “Why shouldn’t jails be dignified and even beautiful buildings since they are in our communities and our city? They are part of our society. They should match our aspirations for justice reform.”
At the moment, there’s reason to fear they won’t.
The shuttering of Rikers and the construction of the four borough jails are presently estimated to cost nearly $9 billion. Mayor Bill de Blasio has handed the assignment to the city’s Department of Design and Construction, which released a letter of intent describing the project as “a once in many generations opportunity to build a smaller and more humane justice system” through “innovative and high-quality design.”
The D.D.C. has announced that the jails will be design-build projects, an umbrella term that essentially means architects and contractors team up to bid for the jobs. The first requests for qualifications go out after the New Year.
Design-build, the D.D.C. says, should reduce delays and budget-overruns and work around the department’s troublesome rule about hiring the lowest-bid contractors, whose ineptitude often ends up costing the city a fortune, stalling projects for years.
This can all sound good. But the D.D.C. has no experience managing a design-build project on anything like this scale, and design-build is ultimately about saving time and money, not about producing good architecture. It guarantees contractors the upper hand. New York officials in recent weeks have been pushing to expand design-build authority, meaning the jails are also likely to become a template for future large-scale projects in the city. Design-build can work for infrastructure and certain other sorts of projects, but it is at heart a neoliberal solution with a legacy of churning out mediocre designs.
New York’s new jails, on the other hand, need to be transformational buildings, not mediocre ones, to match the transformational aspirations of criminal justice reform, and to do justice to the boroughs.
For starters, the city should commission architects upfront to devise schematic drawings. These drawings would be given as guidelines to the design-builders — “bridging documents,” they’re called — so that architecture is assured of being a priority and a commitment.
The city should also hire a czar. Rockefeller Center had Raymond Hood. Lincoln Center had Wallace Harrison and Robert Moses, and while nobody wants today’s incarnation of the old, authoritarian Moses, somebody with a mayoral mandate and construction chops who believes in the social and civic value of design excellence could be appointed to oversee the new jails and break the bureaucratic logjams that, especially across successive city administrations, inevitably bog down and compromise undertakings like this one.
“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails,” Nelson Mandela said. New York will reveal itself by what it does in this case. “New jails can’t fix everything,” as Ms. Glazer put it. “But they can contribute to a virtuous cycle.
“And in the end that will make the city a safer, better place to live.”
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