by: AIANY Architecture for Justice Committee
New York City is at a pivotal moment, with the opportunity to change its approach to correctional facilities. There is consensus among the community, stakeholders, and political bodies that the Rikers Island Jail complex is a jail of the past and not appropriate for today’s changing jail population and criminal justice philosophy. With growing support to close Rikers Island, the future of NYC jails must encompass a holistic and humane approach to the larger justice system in order to accommodate the current and future inmate population with a focus on best practices and modern, state-of-the-art justice facilities.
On December 6, 2017, the AIANY Architecture for Justice Committee hosted The Future of NYC Jails at the Center for Architecture. The event discussed best practices for correctional facility planning and design, current and past attempts to close Rikers Island, the vision of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, as well as insights into the current and future plans for NYC jail facilities. The panel of progressive justice thought leaders included Martin Horn of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Executive Director of the New York State Sentencing Commission and former Commissioner of Corrections and Probation for New York City; Judge Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge of the State of New York and the New York Court of Appeals and Chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform; and Elizabeth Glazer, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The event was introduced by co-chair David Ziskind, Senior Vice President and Chief Architect of STV, and moderated by Brett Firfer, AICP, Senior Associate of CGL RicciGreene.
“Rikers Island is not a jail—it’s an island with ten jails on it.”
Martin Horn discussed the history of Rikers Island and argued for why the complex needs to be closed. Historically, Rikers Island was utilized as a penal colony facility; at the time, the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy was deemed practical and necessary for incarceration. Given the changing climate of today’s criminal justice philosophy, the isolated location of Rikers Island is no longer feasible nor appropriate. Additionally, Rikers Island has a multitude of systemic infrastructural and site problems. The Island is 80 percent landfill, making buildings more expensive in order to support landfill conditions. Existing infrastructure is old and debilitated and the sewage system is deficient. Furthermore, due to the single bridge access to and from the island, transportation to and from court is inefficient and court processes are backlogged, forcing inmates to be incarcerated longer than necessary. Attorneys, families, and visitors can face stressful and time-consuming visits due to the remote location and limited means of access.
“No one comes out of Rikers Island better than when they were going in.”
On behalf of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, Judge Jonathan Lippman conveyed their vision for the future and outlined the plans documented in the A More Just New York City report. Judge Lippman noted that the first necessary step is to lower the current NYC jail population of about 9,000 inmates to 5,000 inmates before any facility-wide changes can be made. Through system-wide criminal justice reforms, such as implementing alternatives to incarceration, bail reform, and decriminalization, the NYC jail population could be reduced to a manageable size. The report’s ultimate vision is that Rikers Island be decommissioned; inmates would be placed in community-based jails in all five boroughs that are located closer to where New Yorkers live and work. The borough-based jails are envisioned to be “smaller, safer and fairer,” encompassing best practices operational and design approaches that are normative in environment; rehabilitative in nature; closer to courthouses, service providers, and agencies that can provide needed programming and resources; and closer proximity to attorneys, families and visitors to accommodate easier means of access to visitation. Additionally, the Commission’s vision includes the proper re-use of Rikers Island, one option being an extension of LaGuardia Airport. Judge Lippman recognized that community engagement and buy-in is imperative for this vision to move forward, but there is evidence that modern jails are not damaging to the community—“Jails are good neighbors.”
“Rethinking Jails as Civic Assets”
Elizabeth Glazer spoke of the city’s operational plans and goals and discussed how to integrate NYC jails with other programs and services. All three panelists stressed that these borough-based facilities should be viewed not as simply jails, but as “Community Justice Centers” that integrate holistic justice services in one facility or a number of facilities in a complex setting. These “Justice Hubs” could incorporate an array of services including courthouse, detention, mental health services, probation, reentry, and other programming components that would be located in close proximity to one another. The goal is to change the culture and purpose of what a typical jail to prevent recidivism, uphold safety and respect, reduce isolation and foster reintegration, and provide staff with support and proper training. Most importantly, these justice centers can accommodate numerous inter-related justice services that work to humanely detain people in incarceration while providing correct treatment and reintegrative resources.