Siting Rikers’ Replacements

Criminal justice reform in New York City has recently centered on plans to shutter and replace Rikers Island, where intensifying public and federal scrutiny have not curbed a culture of violence. On the table for Rikers’ replacement — after reducing the city’s jail population by half — is a system of borough jails, perhaps in the form of new “justice hubs,” connected to courts, community facilities, and reentry services. This is the solution recommended by the Lippman Commission, an independent body appointed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to investigate the viability of closing Rikers and led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. According to the Commission, jails located in civic centers rather than relegated to an isolated island could mean less travel time between jails and courts for attorneys and defendants, reducing delays and transportation costs; the city spent 31 million dollars busing prisoners between jail and court in fiscal year 2016. Jails in civic centers would also provide better access and transit connectivity for families and visitors, a key to better outcomes for people who have been incarcerated. Some believe locating jails in the community would even enable greater public scrutiny and accountability.

Rikers has never been the whole story of jail in New York City. Decentralization is not a new idea, as evidenced by the extant borough jails — whether operating alongside boutique hotels and high-rises in downtown Brooklyn or sitting disused and empty in Kew Gardens — and repurposed shells of courts still found throughout the city. (Until 1962, minor criminal charges were prosecuted in 31 neighborhood Magistrate’s Courts, and Municipal Courts handled civil cases. In 1962, these small courts were swept away by a modernizing wind and a New York State constitutional amendment, and borough courts established in their place; some of the buildings still exist, housing community boards and libraries.) So, the location and design of jails and courts have always reflected the city’s notions of what they ought to be, and how the people in them ought to be treated. Everything old can be new again: A study is now underway to explore the expansion of existing borough jails in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. The Bronx could get a new jail, while Staten Island is currently out of the picture.

With such an approach on the table, we’ve honed in on the city’s “civic centers” and their neighbors. In the introduction to this series, we mapped the extent of criminal justice facilities across the entire city. Plotting a half-mile radius from each borough’s criminal courthouses (for ease of access for attorneys and visitors, and the smooth transfer of detainees — in Manhattan and Brooklyn, jails are connected to the court by a tunnel) the five maps below present neighboring land uses from playgrounds and condominiums to courts and existing detention sites. These drawings invite the viewer to consider: How will neighborhoods and communities react to a new, or expanded, jail in their midst? Even the broad prospect of neighborhood jails has already stoked NIMBYist indignation, particularly during last year’s mayoral campaign. The city’s “civic centers” are in fact interwoven with residences; how would the new structures change the fabric of these areas? What would jails have to be — and look like — to make a smooth transition? In slotting jails into city blocks alongside schools and parks, bus stops and shopping strips, can incarceration be radically changed, and meaningfully integrated into the texture of daily city life? Can it become fairer, less violent, more humane? And can jails come to be accepted as a visible part of urban life, by a city motivated to do things differently?

The Bronx




Staten Island

Max Scoppettone drew the maps based on an earlier version by Nishant Jacob and Stella Ioannidou, with additional research by Olivia Schwob. Data used for maps was drawn from NYC OASIS, DCP Capital Planning Platform Facilities ExplorerNYC Open DataNYC DCP PLUTO, Google Maps, and our Map: The Location of Justice.

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


Thomas Paino February 15, 2018

I strongly urge you to include the Queensboro Correctional Facility in your research:
Although not part of a justice system complex, it plays a major role in the Long Island City commercial community where it is located. As a casual observer, (I walk by at least once a day) I have taken note of the street life catalyzed by the presence of the prison such as vendors catering to those waiting on the arduous line to see a detainee or the weekly gathering of friends and family to witness the transfer of prisoners from the bus to the rear entrance of the facility to get a chance glimpse and offer a quick wave. This occurs against the solid brick wall of LaGuardia College across the street and often includes lawn chairs, coolers and soft drinks or what you would typically see at a sports event.
Just last week during the snowstorm, I witnessed what looked like a choreographed ballet. It was four men identically dressed with identical yellow shovels working in unison to clear the sidewalk. It was only the presence of the female guard that gave hint of what was going on.
I have a wonderful photo taken from a neighboring industrial building that shows the juxtaposition of the barbed wired rooftop basketball court with the wholesale Egyptian bakery next door. Imagine how cruel those aromas must be within the prison. If you give me an email address, I will send it.