Moving America Forward

How to Build a Better Jail

March 29, 2018
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How to Build a Better Jail
As Rikers Island closes, New York City officials are looking for ways to overhaul prison design and improve outcomes for inmates. Photo by undefined undefined/Getty Images
Architects are dreaming up attractive, community-based correctional facilities intended to bond all residents, whether behind bars or not.

Rikers Island, the infamous and isolated jail complex located off the coastline of New York City, is officially being shut down. And in its place is the possibility of new community jails that are designed, specifically, for better treatment of inmates.

Improving the city’s jails, and especially Rikers — which critics have long charged is inhumane, unsafe and dysfunctional — has been a top-line agenda for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Since taking office, his administration has focused on curbing the jail population; reducing the use of solitary confinement; and easing the transition back to society for the formerly incarcerated.

In conjunction with closing Riker’s 10 jails, an independent commission last year recommended the city open smaller facilities — called “justice hubs” — that would be located next to local courts and integrated into existing neighborhoods. The vision for this modern system of jails includes built-in amenities that would be shared with local residents (think exercise facilities, community gardens and art studios).

“Our understanding about design and incarceration has evolved significantly since the jails on Rikers Island were built,” says Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “Light, sound and the arrangement of space are important in creating a safer, calmer environment for the people residing and working there.”

There’s evidence prisoners’ surroundings can affect their outcomes. In upstate New York, for example, camplike facilities that are embedded among pristine lakes and trees, and where inmates sleep in barracks, not cells, have seen markedly low recidivism rates.

The idea of using design and architecture to influence behavior is not a new one for New York City. In August of last year, officials partnered with the Center for Court Innovation and the social-impact design firm Zago to overhaul the interior spaces of Manhattan Criminal Court. Changes included installing new, visitor-friendly signage and erecting a defendants’ bill of rights.

“Manhattan Criminal Court is a pretty foreboding and intimidating place, especially for those who are there for the first time,” says Emily LaGratta, director of procedural justice initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation. She notes that many courts across the country evoke similar negative feelings. “Courthouses were built years ago, when the justice system was addressing a different scope of problems. That, plus new innovation, has imposed additional needs on these spaces. So a lobby that was built to be grand and open is now accommodating security lines and magnetometers.”

Just as the needs of courthouses have changed, so too have the needs of New York’s jails. The city has announced a plan to reduce incarceration numbers to 5,000 in 10 years, and officials are exploring the possibility of eliminating the cash-bail system.

But incorporating the proposed justice hubs — and the prisoners within them — into residential neighborhoods might be a hard sell for the city.

Still, officials are pushing for jails that could address community needs, similar to a public library’s social outreach programs, that would help reduce the stigma of incarceration while building stronger, healthier communities.

To replace Rikers Island, city officials have recommended smaller “justice hubs” that seamlessly integrate into communities while helping to reduce the stigma of incarceration.Photo courtesy of NADAAA

Initially, the effort seemed purely physical — move inmates to jails that are closer to their lawyers, courthouses and neighborhood resources. But it also got city officials thinking: Can correctional facilities be designed in a way that’s safer for inmates and guards, while also engaging the communities in which they’d be built?

“Over the past few decades we have learned, and commonsense informs, that when those who are incarcerated have regular contact with their families and lawyers, it improves both the atmosphere inside, the relationships with officers and staff, and the transition back to neighborhoods,” Glazer says. “This is especially important in jails where most people stay for a short period of time.”

The city issued requests for proposals last year on designs for the new jails and in January chose the firm Perkins Eastman, which was awarded $7.5 million and given 10 months to finalize a blueprint.

“Buildings are not static things … they work with or against the people that are intended to be within them, and there is no better example than a prison,” says Michael Murphy, co-founder and executive director of MASS Designs in Boston. “Even in the most well intentioned prisons, they are intended to separate or to torture people who are incarcerated and restrict access to freedoms.

“There’s almost an intentional lack of design,” he adds.

In reimagining what tomorrow’s prisons will look like, firms like Murphy’s are turning to the past, when other historical institutions left their aesthetic imprint.

“A great example are public libraries,” says Murphy. “You have the Carnegie libraries largely built with foundation dollars from the Carnegie family, which are these beautiful, opulent temples to books.”

Compare that to the “Lindsay boxes” of the 1970s, when New York Mayor John Lindsay had pushed for a library branch in every neighborhood. The results were quickly constructed, one-story buildings made of cinder block.

“It’s a stark difference in imagination,” Murphy continues. “We’ve lowered our expectations of what we deserve. That’s what prisons identify.”

And what we know about design with the greater good in mind is that it works, says Brad Samuels of SITU, an architectural research and design firm in New York.

“These [kinds of designs] are already happening; they’re not speculative,” Samuels says, adding that his firm has worked with low-wage immigrant communities to build housing in Queens, where families are often stuffed into cramped quarters. “We found the best way to build is through community groups and organizations who understand what their needs are.”

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