For many people, arrest marks the first point of entry into the criminal justice system, and the first step down a complex path that removes them further and further from their homes, families, friends, and neighborhoods. As they travel this path for the first time, the person who has been arrested — in this case, our hypothetical “U” — passes through unfamiliar spaces, stewarded by unknown actors. Though these spaces may be housed in far-flung and disparate locations, from U’s point of view, the procedures of arrest, intake, arraignment, and detention are a relentless conveyor belt headed towards an inexorable conclusion. For U, as for roughly 50,000 people annually in New York City, the path ends in jail.
Architects Clara Dykstra and Stella Ioannidou built on their work in the studio #CLOSErikers, taught by Laura Kurgan at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture last spring, to illustrate the path after arrest.Their drawing is stripped down to the most basic sequence: from cop car to holding cell to courthouse. But unlike U’s environment inside the drawing’s clean lines, the real experience is complex and variable. These spaces are far from the pristine boxes described here. They may range from uncomfortable to truly disgusting: too cold or too hot, poorly or aggressively lit, with nowhere to sit and unforgettable, pervasive odors. People who have been arrested may feel stripped of their individuality and autonomy, shuttled through environments intent on demoralizing and dehumanizing them. Procedure, too, can vary. Some people may move swiftly from stage to stage, aided by privilege or simple good luck; others may languish in holding cells for hours or days, awaiting the fleeting but crucial attention of a judge. Sleep may be possible, food may be offered, rights may be read — though legally promised, in practice, none are guaranteed.
Much as the spaces of arrest and arraignment may appear monolithic, they are activated by individuals with agency and discretion. The police officer may choose to issue a warning, the prosecutor may choose to drop charges, the judge may choose to waive bail. Not shown here are those New Yorkers who toil alongside the path, trying to divert and dismantle it — reformers advocate the abolition of cash bail, the end of “quality of life” policing, pre-trial diversion, and investment in social services to stop addiction, poverty, and violence in their tracks. Three out of every four people in city jails on a given day have not been convicted of a crime. To fulfill the City’s commitment to close Rikers Island, New York’s largest and most notorious jail complex, officials may double down on reform efforts to abate the bloated jail population, freeing those who do not pose a flight risk. If this twenty-four-hour timeline demonstrates one route into and through the underworld of incarceration, we hope it also inspires viewers to imagine what other paths might be possible.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.