After Arrest

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.[1] 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.


To construct their timeline, Stella and Clara consulted working public defenders, as well as the Center for Court Innovation and Legal Aid.

Clara Dykstra is an architectural and urban designer living in New York whose work focuses on how the tools of the architect, as both a project manager and as a designer, can be used to help create spaces that change social processes and alter unequal power relations. She is a graduate of Columbia University GSAPP’s Masters of Architecture program and holds a Bachelors of Art in Cultural Anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Stella Ioannidou is a researcher, architect and engineer living in New York City, interested in an interdisciplinary practice that operates at the intersection of architecture, social justice and new media. She holds a Master of Architecture from Columbia University and a M.S. in Computational Geotechnics from NTUA, and is the recipient of the 2017 William Kinne Traveling Fellowship for her project Visualizing oral histories of the Naqab Desert.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


The Location of Justice

An examination of the pervasive and often overlooked infrastructure of criminal justice in New York and the spaces that could serve a more just city.

In This Series


Joshua Sellers November 6, 2017

It might be more accurate to refer to it as the Criminal “Legal” System, instead of the Criminal “Justice” System.