"New York's new prisons will be more than just places of incarceration"
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Rikers Island jail complex, New York

"New York's new prisons will be more than just places of incarceration"

New York's plans for replacing Rikers Island jail will require input from design's brightest minds if the buildings are to integrate with their neighbourhoods, and conditions for inmates and staff are to improve, says Aaron Betsky.


It seems as if New York will actually do something smart about one of the biggest blots on its social system: Rikers Island. Earlier this month, the De Blasio administration announced that it wants to close what is, by all accounts, a hell hole where thousands of prisoners are kept in conditions that breed violence and worsen the problems that caused many of the inmates to wind up there in the first place.

Instead of the big holding tank for criminals, the city will now create four facilities in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, each of which will have about 1,500 beds.

Not only that, but these new prisons will also be, partially following the recommendations of study carried out by the Van Alen Institute, hubs that are more than just places of incarceration.

Placed near courts, they will provide mental and physical health services, as well as access to legal professionals, as well as better places for activities such as study or meeting with family. The ground floors of the structures will contain retail and will be designed to integrate into their neighbourhoods.

If the city carries out the plan – a big if, considering the forces of NIMBYism that will no doubt rally to protest at least some of the sites, not to mention all the other political and financial hurdles the initiative has to pass – the country's most populous city will have taken a big step to move beyond notions of incarceration so outdated that it is hard to believe they still survive.

Little has changed in most American jails and prisons since the 19th century

Little has changed in most American jails (usually run by local authorities for shorter-stay inmates) and prisons since the 19th century, other than that they have become larger and more overcrowded, more removed from the communities they serve, more racist in their effect, and more stripped down by the attempts of private companies to run them for ever greater profits.

Rikers, which is still run by the City of New York, is actually better than most in terms of some of the issues, but not by much.

As an added detail, the prison there also sits on what could be prime real estate, so that its removal would provide an opportunity to develop a larger island right near Manhattan – provided you can figure out how you can handle the noise from adjacent La Guardia Airport (or, as Jim Venturi has proposed, move the airport there).

From a cynical perspective, the continued legal problems a facility such as the one on Rikers will present – and the combination of the economic opportunities that vacating offers – had as much to do with De Blasio's decision as any desire to provide social justice.

The renderings De Blasio's office has produced so far are vague and serve only to indicate the administration's intention to create facilities that will fit into their sites by providing open bases fronted by large glass storefronts, while what will have to be rather monolithic and tall structures (1,500 beds is still quite a lot) is left to fade off the top of the images.

The question is whether any architect will in reality be able to design them in such way as to blend into what are, at least in Queens and the Bronx, low-scale neighbourhoods.

Could design not help to construct justice?

The Manhattan site, a stripped-down neo-classical building that currently serves – among other functions – as the borough's marriage bureau, is in what is in essence already a justice ghetto, surrounded by courthouses and other detention facilities.

The Bronx site is an existing detention facility of no particular note that will be torn down and replaced.

Let us assume that all goes as planned, the plan is approved as intended, and the amenities it imagines are not stripped away in the budgeting process. In that case, the result will be an improvement in the lives of the prisoners, as well as of not only their families, but also of those who must serve or contain them.

The increased activity on the sites will even benefit the surrounding area with retail facilities, and, of course, Rikers Island's redevelopment will be a boon to the city's economy.

To get to that point of the greatest possible good will require a series of political and procedural miracles, but it will also need the involvement of good architects and designers.

That, in turn, raises the question of whether any designer should become complicit in the justice system of this country as it is currently constituted and in the manner in which it operates, including its strong racial biases and lack of differentiation between, for instance, drug and violent crimes.

An attempt to create spaces that offer even a little bit more hope is something that we should applaud

At least designers do not have to worry in New York about designing jails where executions are carried out, but the moral position remains a difficult one.

Should, in other words, designers work with a system that produces injustice as much as it does justice, and become part of that system? Should they do so even if they could make the lives of those involved better and could create spaces that might even lead to more rehabilitation or justice through better access to learning and rehabilitation activities, as well as health, social, and legal services? Could design not help to construct justice?

The answer, it would seem to me, should be yes. Though I fully support the initiative that would forbid AIA members from designing maximum-security prisons, for instance, it does seem to me that an attempt to use design – from urban planning to interior and furniture design – to create spaces that offer even a little bit more hope, is something that we should applaud and honour.

In my dreams, it will not be the usually mediocre firms that specialise in prisons that will do the work, and produce banal boxes that will deaden both inmates and the buildings' neighbourhoods.

Instead, it will be some of the best minds in the design disciplines, so that the results will contribute to all of our lives, inside, outside, and even far away. This is all a lot of hope. De Blasio and his crew are offering that. Let's build on the possibilities.