Design Knowledge Intermediary
This design team has ideas for a better, more humane jail system
Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex, is set to close within the next decade. For some activists, the pace of change is too slow, but, if the city is taken at its word, ten years is a solid chunk of time to rethink justice in 21st century New York. A design team, convened by Van Alen in collaboration with NADAAA, has set out to do exactly that.
Justice in Design, a new report from the Van Alen Institute, a design advocacy organization, gives broad guidelines on how New York’s criminal justice system should look, feel, and function. Notably, it centers the urban condition but aims to enhance life for those behind bars, as well as those outside the justice system, by elevating both the city and the jail’s livability with public programming, dense service networks, and lots of light and greenery.
The project was deeply collaborative. To produce Justice in Design, Van Alen partnered with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the legal experts, politicians, developers, and prison reform advocates she convened last year to address the Rikers closure. That group, sometimes called the Lippman Commission but known formally as the Independent
Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, issued its recommendations this past March: Closing Rikers Island, it said, is a “moral imperative,” and it advocated for reducing the city’s overall jail population and creating a network of neighborhood-based jails.
Instead of producing a strictly carceral space, the designers envisioned a networked jail system spread throughout the city and meant to serve the wider community, not just prisoners. Called Justice Hubs, the mini-neighborhoods are intended to confront re-entry dilemmas—despite new rules, for example, many industries still discriminate against people with backgrounds—while addressing day-to-day challenges faced by those who work in the criminal justice system.
In the Brooklyn forum, residents said they weren’t concerned about safety if a jail were to open in their neighborhood. Instead, Gahllager said, people were worried the building would be ugly: a grey concrete Hulk surrounded by razor wire. That prompted the team to think not only about the design of the jail itself, but its relationship to the city and its people.
NADAAA’s conceptual designs try to make life on the inside as normal (“more conventional,” per Gallagher) as possible. The report emphasizes access to natural light and ventilation not only in outdoor areas, but in visitor rooms, activity spaces, and (especially) cells. Instead of monolithic cinder blocks and concrete finished, the architects advocated for softer, natural finishes to add visual variety and reduce background noise, a significant stressor in close quarters. The layout is supposed to make it easier to move within the jail, and the facilities would be placed near courts and social services. There would be ample but unobtrusive parking for corrections officers, too.