Where is justice located in New York City? For those of us who are not regularly in contact with it, the city’s criminal justice system is a world apart. As citizens, we trust that there are structures in place to step in when a person threatens the integrity of someone else’s life or property. We trust that when someone transgresses our rules for living together in relative harmony, they will not only be punished for their acts but will also be given the opportunity to make amends and change their behavior. And we trust that this system will accomplish its tasks discreetly in the background, without overstepping its bounds.
For many New Yorkers, the criminal justice system exists mainly as an order-maintaining abstraction. In that way, it is not unlike the infrastructures that, at great effort and investment, bring us running water, distribute electricity, or collect our trash: plants banished from the cityscape, pipelines tucked out of sight. We measure these systems by their ability to deliver public goods. In this sense, our criminal justice infrastructure delivers public safety: The country’s safest major city, New York has seen fewer major crimes each year for the last 25 years. But it takes a spectacular failure to bring these infrastructures to light and reveal fault lines that lurk out of sight. Think of poisoned water, a bridge collapse, a train derailment, a blackout — and the numerous violent episodes that have recently brought the criminal justice system hurtling into public vision.
The deaths of Kalief Browder and Eric Garner are the most familiar, but by no means the only, local instances. At 16, Browder was arrested and accused, but never tried — let alone found guilty — of stealing a backpack; unable to pay $3,000 bail, he was sent to Rikers Island. He committed suicide in the summer of 2015, his psyche broken from over 1,000 days in jail, more than 800 days in solitary confinement, and 38 postponed hearings — a descent into a hell exceeding the combined imaginations of Dante and Kafka. Eric Garner was choked to death by police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the course of being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes near his home in Staten Island one year earlier. Both Browder and Garner’s cases raised awareness and elicited outrage, but generated little by way of direct consequences. Pantaleo, who was not indicted by a grand jury, still holds a desk job at the NYPD; Kalief’s Law, meant to prevent delays in scheduling trials, has yet to pass in New York’s State Senate.
Eric Garner and Kalief Browder’s stories reveal the violence underlying New Yorkers’ routine and anodyne experiences of public safety. While some of us count on the criminal justice system to keep its distance, for others it is a part of daily life. Intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system starts in intensively policed housing, schools, and neighborhoods. It follows the city’s concentrated geography of race and poverty; neighborhoods bereft of economic opportunities are saturated with police. More police means more encounters and arrests that can mean losing custody of children, losing a home, losing a job, or being deported — even when a person is never convicted of a crime. The absence of those incarcerated is a painful vacancy for the families and communities left behind. At home, intense surveillance and a lack of resources can make some neighborhoods feel like a jail, with little freedom of movement or opportunity for advancement. And even as neighborhood “criminality” draws police presence, individual crimes can go uninvestigated and unsolved. From this intimate perspective, the failures of the criminal justice system are spectacular, the harms it inflicts are violent, and both are impossible to ignore.
In contrast to a citywide narrative of safety and security, the criminal justice system can also be characterized by delays in court hearings, unjustified use of incarceration, unethical use of solitary confinement, overzealous quality of life policing, and excessive use of force. Indeed, people familiar with these conditions might reject the idea that the criminal justice system is malfunctioning. It is all too successful at criminalizing poor people of color and defining the contours of their lives, delivering neither justice nor safety.
No one location has come to represent the failings of the city’s criminal justice system — as well as its selective, perverse invisibility — so much as Rikers Island. It lies between Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens, and at the intersection of the city’s specific geography and a national story of mass incarceration. Today, more than 60,000 people a year pass through Rikers, 89 percent of them Black or Latino. When an investigation by the Department of Justice condemned its pervasive “culture of violence” and resulted in a 2015 consent decree requiring reforms and independent federal monitoring, it was a revelation to some — and an overdue statement of the obvious for others. Earlier this year, after decades of activist pressure and spurred by the recommendations of the Lippman Commission appointed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mayor de Blasio announced he would shutter what #CLOSErikers activists call “Torture Island.”
Closing Rikers will be both an act of monumental symbolism, and a concrete step to acknowledge the humanity of people who are held in and people who work in city jails. It will be a hard-won victory that builds on decades of reform efforts by advocates, activists, policymakers and public officials across the city. Changes to the juvenile detention system, drug enforcement, and bail policy; a decrease in misdemeanor arrests; and an array of programs providing alternatives to incarceration and support to returning citizens have all contributed to a reduction in reliance on incarceration without compare in the United States. Over the last two decades, the city has reduced its jail population by half. According to the mayor’s plan, the number of people incarcerated on Rikers will have to decline by another 50 percent before the complex could be replaced by a “smaller, safer, fairer” system of borough-based jails.
But Rikers is the tip of the iceberg, one node in a vast and complex infrastructure which extends across the city’s landscape. It is located in courtrooms new and old. It spills onto sidewalks, where people line up to get into the courthouse or probation office. It is on the buses that take people to visit family members held at Rikers, and deposit those released from jail at Queens Plaza. It is in the subway stations surveilled by watchful police; in precincts and probation offices and halfway houses; and even at home, where people under supervision can expect unannounced visits and regular phone calls from parole officers.
These spaces affect the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the city. Taken together, they also represent a legacy of sustained investment in specific governmental interventions in people’s lives — and, significantly, inadequate investment in others. A large number of people in contact with the criminal justice system experience homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, health problems, lack of education — and they do not have other supports. Paradoxically, jails and prisons may be the only places they can obtain the services they need, and then only in environments that likely exacerbate those same problems. In fiscal year 2017, more money in the city’s expense budget went to the departments of Police, Corrections, and Probation and associated programs than to Health and Mental Hygiene, Homeless Services, Housing Preservation and Development, Youth and Community Development, Libraries, Parks, and Pre-K combined. Instead of investing in systems that develop people’s potential and protect their homes and livelihoods, we finance interventions of last resort.
Over the coming months, Urban Omnibus seeks to understand how the spaces of the criminal justice system give shape to, regulate, and affect our experience of the city. We’ll present both a broad view of geographies, statistics, and histories, and a specific accounting of how these spaces affect the mechanisms of justice and the course of people’s lives, through essays and first person accounts, original documentary work, and design projects and proposals. To introduce the series, the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia University has helped us to map the extent of the system across the city and upstate. While the system’s reach is broad, the pathway an individual follows from arrest to incarceration, illustrated in a space- and time-line, narrows as it leads out of the neighborhood and into the city’s impermeable spaces of detention.
In later installments, we’ll examine our criminal justice infrastructure at different scales, and how the design of courts, the siting of jails, the security of housing, and the policing of public space all contribute to New Yorkers’ experience of the system and shape how it functions. We’ll consider the role played by incarceration in the maintenance of the built environment and in economic development, as well as the profound impacts of new technologies on neighborhood policing and communication with people in jail or prison. And we’ll ask: What roles do the many spaces of the system play and how do they interconnect? How does space contribute to making the system fair, efficient, transparent, or reliable, or how does it do the opposite? Could design support work underway to transform the system? What might a city that radically reconceives its justice system look like?
Today, there are more and more advocates for change, attempts to fix the system, and alternative visions for justice in the city. These include a number of high-profile attempts to engage design in meting out justice and ensuring safety in urban environments. For one, the closure and replacement of Rikers Island puts questions of space and design front and center. Where would the proposed five new borough jails go? This hinges on how we distribute land uses. Who decides, and what is fair? Have we any recourse against those who declare “not in my backyard”? What will the jails be like? Can the design of a jail make it acceptable, or desirable, to its neighbors? Inside, how will the disposition of the space protect safety and respect dignity of detainees and corrections officers? Can the design help avoid delays? Can it facilitate reentry?
Rather than looking for new ways to design environments to control behavior, this series will explore different visions for shaping an urban environment that is just in the broader sense. Our justice infrastructure is urgent terrain for attention and intervention. For eight years, UO has presented innovations for urban life tried and tested in New York City. We venture into this territory without preconceived solutions, but guided by a strong optimism and a challenge for urbanists and citizens. New York City has been the site of numerous innovations for public safety: defensible space, broken windows policing, Compstat, model community courts. Of course, recent history has revealed the unintended consequences of many attempted reforms (state-of-the-art though they were, at the time). Now, armed with hindsight, and new insights, could New York lead the way towards a more just city?
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.