Structures: Perspectives

Graphic by Ann Lewis

They are hardly the only spaces critical to the function of its criminal justice system, but the city’s courthouses and jails are by far the most visible. If not from the sidewalk, then in the popular imagination. The symbolism and gravity of the buildings where fates are determined, freedoms are curtailed, and, ideally, justice is served, put them at the center of our image of the justice system, even if this image comes largely from TV. In reality, many of these buildings and the procedures housed within them are impervious to our scrutiny. Plea bargaining takes place in private; sites of detention are opaque, impregnable. The abuses and injustices that can and do take place beyond public scrutiny, illuminated today in heartbreaking testimonies, are driving advocates and architects to reimagine these structures. What form should they take? And how should they work? In this section of the Location of Justice, UO asks how the city’s jails and courts affect the workings of the criminal justice system, and takes a look at the role of design and planning in attempts to reform it, past and present.

Criminal justice discussions in New York City today center on plans to shutter and replace Rikers Island. But the final closure of Rikers’s ten jails, which took in the lion’s share of the 58,000 people admitted to city jails last year, depends on making significant reductions to the city’s jail population. Lawmakers, police, and prosecutors will all play their part, as will the courts. Court is where bail is set (and often can’t be met), where delays in hearings keep people in jail while they are presumed innocent, where people are sentenced, to jail (for misdemeanors with sentences under one year), or to prison upstate (for felonies). The abuses of the age of mass incarceration have also tarnished the image of the courts. Rather than guarantors of due process, they can be overcrowded and confusing processors of arraignments and pushers of plea deals, made behind closed doors.  Tracing a history of enclosure in the design of the American courthouse, legal scholar Norman Spaulding outlines the threats such architecture can pose for democratic participation in the administration of justice.

What sort of house does justice demand in the 21st century? Armed with findings that people obey the law when they trust that it is fair and respectful, advocates of procedural justice are addressing the physical design of courts, from the layout and design of courtrooms to improvements in signage and wayfinding. We learn about an experiment underway to retrofit the 77-year old Manhattan Criminal Court to provide a clearer, fairer experience to the hundreds of thousands of people who come through the building each year.

Elsewhere, new approaches to justice reimagine the courts’ procedures, along with the types of spaces where they unfold. At local community courts, judges and other service providers are tasked with addressing the issues of poverty — health, housing, education, addiction — that land people in court, instead of sentencing them to detention. The Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn is the archetypical model, and inspiration for projects across North America. Anna Altman pays it a visit, along with the places where advocates of restorative justice, like architect Deanna Van Buren, are dispensing with court settings entirely to create new environments for processes of peacemaking and reconciliation.

Contemporary justice designs count on the environment to guide the process and participants’ compliance with its outcomes, whether in a courtroom or a peacemaking circle. Structures for detention are less subtle in their attempts to compel desired behaviors from those inside. While jails hold people who have not been sentenced (and should be presumed innocent) and prisons are places of punishment, they operate on similar principles of containment and isolation. Guaranteeing the security of detainees and guards alike, and eliminating risks of riot or escape come first. Rehabilitation may or may not be on the agenda. Over their long career in justice architecture in New York City, Frank Greene and Kenneth Ricci have witnessed shifting paradigms of corrections and detention change. In an interview, they discuss our overreliance on incarceration to address social problems, and describe their approach to planning and designing smaller-scale, local, and more humane facilities.

The last three decades of the twentieth century were boom years for jail and prison construction in the United States, but a long history of experimentation in prison architecture and reform predates the age of mass incarceration. What specific architectures can promote good behavior? In the 19th century, Auburn and Sing Sing prisons in upstate New York sought to reform prisoners by forcing introspection. Eastern State Penitentiary outside Philadelphia, with its panopticon design, sought similar ends by getting prisoners to internalize surveillance. A more recent American invention is the Supermax facility, which proliferated in the 1990s (New York State has several). These prisons, designed for the isolation of individuals for 23 hours a day, in violation of international standards on torture and human rights, have been at the center of debates on the ethical obligations of the architects of incarceration for years. In contrast, proponents of more humane designs for detention point to countries like Norway for examples of normative environments where light and air are restorative, with programming for reentry and rehabilitation, with improved relationships between people detained in jails and the corrections officers who work there, and without wanton violence or excessive security.

But attempts to design and build model sites of detention have perennially frustrated would-be reformers. Consider the indictment of the “typical American jail” by Richard Mc Gee:

It is needlessly expensive.
There are too many of them.
They are dirty.
They are unhealthful.
They are corruptly operated.
They contain too many persons who do not belong in jail.
They are centers of illicit political activity.
They are breeders-not healers of crime.
They fail in their most elementary function, that of safe detention.

Mc Gee, NYC Corrections Commissioner and warden of the first penitentiary on Rikers Island, wrote these words in 1939. “If any person here is responsible for the administration of a jail and it is not guilty of a majority of these faults, then his is not a typical jail. If it is not a typical jail today, it was at some time in the past and no doubt it will be again at some time in the future.” The story of Rikers Island, whose jails were built to reform and replace outdated, unhealthy and violent facilities elsewhere in the city, only to replicate and exacerbate their worst qualities, recounted here by Jack Norton and Jarrod Shanahan, illustrates this as-yet unbroken cycle.

As Five Mualimm-ak recently wrote from the Manhattan Detention Complex, without profound changes in the culture of how they are operated, the abuses of incarceration can endure even in new and improved physical spaces. Arguing that the horrors of jail are baked into the concept itself, proponents of prison abolition are calling for the city to close the jails at Rikers — and not replace them. Instead, they suggest, the city could change its approach to policing, and spend money not on building and renovating jails but on “life-sustaining services that address social and economic needs and on community-led initiatives for addressing harm and accountability in non-punitive ways.”

Last year, the Lippman Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform estimated the cost of construction of five new borough jails in New York City at over $10 billion. New building programs can serve the improvement of the system; they can also reinforce longstanding, unjust patterns of social investment. It’s important to note that the age of massive jail and prison construction is far from over. The City of Los Angeles has plans to build a new $2 billion jail, while Detroit is considering a complex real estate deal in which Dave Gilbert would redevelop a half-built jail downtown into a mixed-use development, and build a new criminal justice center two miles away. The federal government may soon contract for the construction of five new private detention centers for the immigrants detained in increasing numbers by ICE. Jail populations are growing in rural counties across the country. If it can continue to reduce its incarcerated population, and find a new approach to pretrial detention, New York City could be a new model for the United States, but it will take more than that to make a just and safe city for all its residents. In the next installment of the Location of Justice, “Streets,” we’ll explore the pursuit of safety at the level of the neighborhood, examining historical and contemporary attempts to build justice block by block, from policing to environmental design.

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