In the United States, mass incarceration has become one of the defining issues of the decade. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. prisons and jails hold more than 2.2 million inmates—nearly one quarter of the world’s prisoner population—a disproportionate number of them minorities.    

New York has its own jail problem. Though the city has seen drastic drops in both crime and incarceration rates, it is home to one of the nation’s most notorious municipal detention centers, Rikers Island. Located in the East River just 250 feet from LaGuardia Airport’s runways, the 413-acre complex—plagued by violence and scandal—is home to nearly 10,000 inmates. The majority of them have not even been convicted of a crime; they are there awaiting trial or detained because they simply cannot afford bail.

Recently, city officials—notably City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito—have called for the closure of Rikers Island, a task that Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month will be “a long and difficult path.”

Now, reform advocates are partnering with architects for solutions. Today, the Van Alen Institute in partnership with Mark-Viverito and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released Justice In Design, a new report laying down a design framework for more efficient, supportive, and humane city jails. Rather than a centralized jail, the report calls for a series of so-called “justice hubs” integrated into the urban fabric of each of the city’s five boroughs.

“More and more, we realize that large-scale approaches to pressing challenges such as our city’s jail systems aren’t the best solution,” said Van Alen executive director, David van der Leer in a release. “It’s exciting to see how smaller neighborhood-based hubs could have a more positive impact on the justice system and New York City communities.”

The multidisciplinary research team that produced Justice in Design was selected through a closed-call search by Van Alen and the Independent Commission and includes Dan Gallagher and Nader Tehrani of the firm NADAAA, Susan Gottesfeld of the Osborne Association, Susan Opotow and Jayne Mooney from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of CUNY, and the urbanist Karen Kubey.

The group embarked on their research in January, hosting meetings across the city with residents and former inmates to identify key concerns and pragmatic design solutions, that “best serve New York City, the boroughs, and local communities,” according to the report.

Justice in Design approaches jail reform through the perspectives of the four primary groups impacted by New York’s penitentiaries:  Detainees, corrections officers and jail staff, visitors, and the surrounding communities. Similarly, the report identifies four areas for improvement: the design of interiors—including living and working space; support programs within the jails; establishing better protocols within the facilities, such as visitation and inmate processing; and creating connections between those effected by the jail system and the city.

The report begins by addressing the conditions of the jail itself. “Access to a variety of good-quality spaces has a positive effect on the physical and mental health of people living and working in jail facilities,” the report says. As such, many of these recommendations are centered around basic improvements, such as access to daylighting and fresh air, views to the outdoors, mitigating sensory dissonance like noise and temperature, and incorporating a more diverse color and material palette.

Diagrams by NADAAA depict various spaces for inmates, workers, and visitors. For instance, rather than blocks of cells, the designers suggest arranging cells around a recreation room, with direct supervision at a centralized desk. To ease the stress of officers and staff members, the report recommends distinct spaces for workers to “recharge and refocus,” including varied working spaces, break rooms with quality furniture and finishes, and access to outdoor spaces.

Justice in Design also proposes steps to reduce the visual and social stigmas of jail complexes, which are physically and socially isolated from the surrounding city and feature heavy architectural language that gives the impression—as one community member put it—“of ‘bad people’ being inside.”

“As New York City moves forward on redesigning jails—and more specifically on the closing of Rikers Island—it is time to consider a different paradigm,” the report states. This paradigm reconceives jails as “justice hubs” near borough courthouses—centers that lend dignity to the prisoners and employees, as well as providing essential community services. Placing the jails in close proximity to courthouses rather than on an isolated island, the report argues, allows for a more efficient inmate processing, and provides more convenient access for lawyers, facility employees, and visitors. The report also recommends that justice hubs include public parks, gardens, and arts facilities, and areas for social services for both the community and former inmates.

If implemented effectively, Justice In Design could be a model to address mass incarceration nationally. But, as the Mayor de Blasio indicated in his own strategy to close Rikers last month, reforms are not easy. Indeed, the Van Alen and Independent Commission’s report acknowledges that in order to succeed, there must be essential shifts in both correction’s culture and city policy. The report also did not address funding mechanisms.  

Yet recommendations could be an important first step in New York jail reform. Said City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, “Moving forward we will continue to look for ways to enact meaningful reforms like these, which will help restore some normalcy and dignity to the lives of incarcerated New Yorkers.”

Read the full report here.