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In New York City, New Jails Threaten Dreams For True Community Spaces and Restorative Architecture

This article was funded by the Marvel Cooke Fellowship. Read more about this reporting project and make a contribution to fund our fellowship budget.

In 2019, New York City made the historic pledge to shutter the 89-year-old Rikers Island jail complex by 2026. In the years since, budget restrictions and the pandemic have at once pushed back the proposed timeline and heightened the urgency to address conditions on the island. 

Even as the timeline shifts, a highly controversial piece of the plan remains: the creation of four new borough-based jails, intended in-part to replace the city’s existing facilities in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. These new facilities, which have been billed as “safer, smaller, and fairer,” are presented by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration as a departure from Rikers’ notoriously dangerous conditions. 

However, the creation of new jails could compromise efforts to achieve decarceration and the abolition of detention, which initially animated the campaign to Close Rikers. 

Among the proposed sites for these new facilities is 320 Concord Avenue. The lot sits at an intersection in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx that currently serves as an NYPD tow pound. 

In recent years, residents have dreamed up potential uses for the space from affordable housing to community centers. Those dreams are partially informed by the site’s own rich (albeit troubled) history. Investing in such community-created spaces could also work in tandem with restorative design, a new abolition-oriented approach to architecture that is gaining prominence within the field. 

Bringing those ideas to fruition in lieu of another jail, however, will hinge upon organizers’ success in undermining assumptions about what is possible, aligning divergent perspectives across the city, and embracing more radical ideas about the potential that design might have in creating spaces for developing transformative, as opposed to punitive, ways of addressing harm.

While they are not the only jails in New York City, the Rikers complex is often referred to as a “stain on the city.” While this framing speaks to the city’s reputation, it doesn’t truly capture the deplorable and dehumanizing conditions that can only be fully understood by those living or working inside. 

At the height of mass incarceration, Rikers jailed 22,000 people across eight facilities. The foul smell and pest infestation that plague it are products of its location atop a landfill. A lack of air conditioning, as well as leaks and water damage, have also contributed to extreme temperatures, illness and discomfort, and death. 

In recent years, omnipresent violence has dominated discussions of Rikers, which disproportionately falls upon adolescents and those dealing with mental illness. Between 2016 and 2019, Rikers’ officers escalated their violence against incarcerated people substantially: use of force incidents rose by 54 percent—from 390 incidents per month to 600—even as the city’s jail population fell.

Rikers has also been called “a ball of darkness” and “a small city, denoting its isolation from the rest of New York. That isolation has facilitated rampant violence and abuse, and it strains relationships between those inside and their advocates in the free world. 

Located in the East River between The Bronx and Queens, Rikers is accessible only by a single city bus route and multiple security checkpoints, creating what amounts to an hours-long trek for loved ones and legal counsel who wish to visit anyone detained there. The distance also makes it difficult for defendants to attend their court appearances throughout the five boroughs. Rikers’ seclusion, overcrowding, and profoundly unhygienic conditions also made it an early COVID-19 hotspot. 

Remaking History

Each of the proposed jails has required a comment and coordination process with local community members, and has seen opposition, feedback, and support animated by desires that are unique to each neighborhood. 

The Bronx is the only borough within the plan that is not already home to a land-based jail. The borough instead houses the Vernon C. Bain facility, referred to as “The Boat” or “The Slave Ship” depending on which community members you ask. The 5-story jail rests on a barge anchored in the waters off the Bronx’s southern shore and has the capacity to incarcerate 800 people at any given time.

A mock-up of the proposed Bronx jail. (credit: “Beyond Rikers: Toward A Borough-Based Jail System” by NYC Office of the Mayor)

While the borough-based jail plan would allow for the closure of Vernon C. Bain, the proposal for a landside facility is fraught with tension. Bronx residents in Mott Haven specifically have expressed concern and dismay over the choice of 320 Concord Avenue for the jail development. 

320 Concord Ave. meets necessary site criteria in that it is owned by the city, located near public transit, and sits roughly three miles away from the Bronx County Hall of Justice. However, local leaders such as Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. argue that it’s far less accessible than an open site near Grand Concourse—the initial site proposed by the city until a local council member obstructed it.

Generally, Mott Haven residents who oppose the Bronx site do so for reasons that are as varied as they are personal. Some hold fears around their own safety and concerns about the devaluation that a jail could potentially pose on their neighborhood. These concerns are often categorized as NIMBYism, or “Not in My Backyard,” a movement that believes criminalized people are undesirable and don’t belong in their communities. 

NIMBY arguments have cropped up throughout time and are often dismissed by advocates in support of new jail plans as racist (and rightfully so). Yet, when all opposition to the borough jail plan gets labeled as NIMBYism, important distinctions between opponents are lost.

Mychal Johnson is an organizer with South Bronx Unite, a group that has been vocally against the new jail plan. He says that it’s important for residents to coalesce under shared goals in order to build enough power to successfully reject the plan.  

“I think people are gaining more and more understanding about the situation and how this doesn’t just affect our community, but it’s a national issue,” said Johnson. “But most often people are more easily motivated by what directly impacts their lives and that can sound NIMBYish, right? But what they’re going through is the same thing that others are going through in their own communities. It’s not NIMBY, it’s more so about what’s the root issue.” 

“I think we have to really work hard to make sure we show folks that we have to have a large base and a large coalition to achieve necessary objectives,” he said, “and don’t let them box us in with a conversation that narrows our argument.”

For many Mott Haven residents and advocates, opposition to the jail proposal is particularly strong because of the degree of underinvestment that the community has endured for so long. 

Johnson says that this neglect has been the result of top-down decision making throughout the borough that has only wrought havoc on the communities social, environmental, and physical well-being. He cites the creation of the Cross Bronx Expressway in the 1950’s as well as former New York Governor Pataki’s decision to place four of the state’s eleven power plants in the South Bronx as just some of the structural decisions that have harmed community health. 

The neighborhood has the highest rates of asthma and diabetes in the city, and is also the lowest performing school district. 

“The cognitive development of our children is directly linked to the air our children breathe,” said Johnson. He added that the neighborhood has been “dealt a terrible hand” with these development projects and that, while South Bronx Unite was supportive of the Mayor’s announcement to close Rikers, building what amounts to a “New Rikers” is not the answer. 

“When community members asked serious questions about [the new jails] environmental impact, its social impact, and why this community has to continue to shoulder the burden all we received was ‘it’s gonna be good for people who have family members in Rikers because it’s closer to their families,'” said Johnson. 

“Our thing is that if you really want to bring them closer to their family, then bring them home—meaning that if you have folks who are there on nonviolent offenses, or who are waiting for their day in court, let them come home,” he argued, adding there are alternatives to incarceration so that “you don’t have to keep building more and more beds that you’re gonna fill. It’s all part of that whole prison industrial complex and we feel it needs to stop.”

A mock-up of the Diego Beekman Neighborhood Plan. (Credit: “Diego Beekman Neighborhood Plan” by Forsyth Street & Curtis & Ginsberg Architects LLP)

The facility would disrupt a community revitalization plan initially proposed in 2017. Known as The Diego Beekman Neighborhood Plan, the proposal aims to strengthen local institutions and bring mixed income housing, employment, retail, and social services to three underutilized sites, including 320 Concord Avenue. 

Under the plan, the 183,000 square foot lot at Concord would be transformed into over 500 affordable residences, a large supermarket, and a new multi-story light industrial building that could create an estimated 100-200 new jobs.   

The neighborhood plan seeks to not just reinvestment in the community but also redress for the harms that occurred on the land itself. In the mid 19th century, the Bronx was largely a rural landscape until overcrowding in Manhattan drove residents further North. High population density coupled with poor sanitation practices allowed for the rapid spread of disease that disproportionately impacted Black residents. This precipitated the creation of a hospital and space for the training of Black people in the medical profession, many of whom were formerly enslaved. 

In 1898, the Lincoln School for Nurses was founded. It was the only institution in the country training Black women in nursing. For over six decades, Lincoln students hailed from across the country and even internationally, and upon graduating they would address the needs of patients both in the Bronx as well as throughout the city. In 1961, however, Lincoln closed its doors after suffering the same fate as hundreds of other all-Black schools shuttered shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Despite the closure of the nursing school, its associated hospital continued to operate. By the mid 1960’s, Lincoln Hospital was becoming increasingly notorious for medical malpractice and its failure to meet the needs of the population, which at that time had the highest rate of heroin dependency in the world and a mortality rate 50 percent higher than the rest of the country. 

In 1969, the Young Lords Party protested conditions at Lincoln, seizing the hospital’s nurses’ residence and winning city funds intended for the hospital’s drug treatment services. Throughout the 1970’s, the Young Lords operated a highly successful People’s Detox program and cemented their role in the burgeoning community health movement. 

Also emerging from the Lincoln Takeover was the creation of the Patients Bill of Rights, which sought to ensure that the dignity of patients would be acknowledged and is still used in hospitals across the city today. 

In 1976, the hospital relocated, and the lot at 320 Concord Avenue has since operated as a tow pound for the police.

“When this community comes together, we have really good ideas around ‘what does growth look like?’ I think our whole idea around opposing that development and this process of bringing this new prison there is because it wasn’t being community driven—it wasn’t formed by and created with the people in the community in mind,” Johnson said. 

Just as the Lincoln Takeover was fueled by the dire health needs of South Bronx residents, today’s movement to reject the Mott Haven jail is animated by the profound reach of mass incarceration into the neighborhood coupled with the community’s poor health profile. 

Community District 1, of which Mott Haven is a part, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the city: 1,214 out of every 100,000 residents are detained on any given day. The neighborhood has also been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and was home to one of the city’s largest infection hot spots.

Incarceration and COVID-19 have left outsized impacts on these communities, leaving Johnson and other organizers wary about the city’s decision to invest in “public safety” over public health. 

Activists holding a “Campaign To Shut Down Rikers” banner are escorted out of a recent DOC meeting where officials asked to delay changes to solitary confinement. (Screenshot from Twitter video by @ShutDownRikers)

The Perfect Tidal Storm

Living conditions and high profile incidents have long drawn attention to Rikers Island. However, the story of Kalief Browder was a particularly notable flashpoint underscoring and adding new urgency to demands to shutter the complex. 

Browder, a Bronx teenager, was detained at Rikers from 2010 to 2013. For two of those years, he was in solitary confinement. Upon his release, he experienced depression and paranoia, and discussed the psychological and physical torture he experienced at Rikers. In June of 2015, he died by suicide. In October of that same year, Kalief’s older brother Akeem formed Shut Down Rikers, a campaign that helped amplify and give weight to existing grassroots efforts to close the jail complex. 

From its inception, Shut Down Rikers staged impactful, and often shocking in-person actions such as smashing three pinatas designed to look like Mayor de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and New York Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte outside of Bronx Supreme Court. They also carried a mock coffin with Kalief’s name etched on the front to City Hall. 

While Shut Down Rikers helped propel the conversation about closing the jail complex into the mainstream at a time with Mayor De Blasio argued it would be politically unfeasible, early organizers with the group say that the campaign quickly became co-opted by political moderates who were also advocating for Rikers’ closure through an explicitly less abolitionist lens. 

That second and arguably far more recognizable Close Rikers campaign emerged out of the advocacy of Just Leadership USA (JLUSA), a national organization of people directly impacted by the criminal justice system. JLUSA’s campaign, spearheaded by founder Glenn Martin, launched in 2016 and progressed rapidly by elevating the stories of those directly impacted, organizing in-person actions, leveraging digital advocacy strategies, and targeting elected officials. 

The campaign focused on raising political pressure and shifting the public narrative about both the feasibility of closing a complex of Rikers’ size and the humanity of those detained on the island. However, members of the earlier Shut Down Rikers campaign have argued that Close Rikers lacked a commitment to not expand the carceral system even as plans to close the jail complex progressed. 

In a 2018 interview with The Appeal, Nabil Hussein, an organizer who worked with Shut Down Rikers explained that “unlike us, [JustLeadership] never took a clear stance from the beginning on building more neighborhood jails. We were always very clear and explicit about [opposing new jails] from the beginning and we didn’t see that from them.”

Just a month after the public launch of Close Rikers, advocates with Shut Down Rikers released a public statement calling out the “NGO-ization of dissent” that was on display as groups like JLUSA began to dominate conversations around Close Rikers and garnered funds from philanthropic entities while doing so. The statement asserted that these political and foundation ties would impede upon their ability to advocate for the most radical and lasting change. 

“The conversation of closing Rikers has become increasingly synonymous with building new neighborhood jails,” the group wrote, “which is entirely incompatible with our campaign’s abolitionist perspectives.”

For DeAnna Hoskins, current executive director of JLUSA, the origins of the Close Rikers campaign should be attributed less to these existing grassroots efforts and instead to what she describes as a “perfect tidal storm” of events that illuminated the urgency of closing the facility. 

This included the release of a 2014 Department of Justice report [PDF] detailing conditions at Rikers, Kalief Browder’s death in 2015, and the creation of an independent body of city leaders that recommended Rikers’ closure in 2016 known as the Lippman Commission. 

These events, Hoskins says, allowed JLUSA to build a coalition of directly impacted people, service providers, and organizations, as well as those who may not be intimately impacted but could be outraged by the complex’s fiscal impact. 

“We were able to bring in allies who had not personally been impacted by Rikers by focusing on the cost to operate Rikers Island,” said Hoskins. “Literally the cost to house one person on Rikers Island would actually pay for somebody’s college degree at Harvard. So once that happens, the momentum was there, the political will was there, and you had elected officials who understood.” 

In 2019, that momentum culminated in a historic vote to close the facility and cap the citywide jail population to 3,300 people by 2026. The announcement to close Rikers was also accompanied by a plan to develop four smaller borough-based jails in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, in the place of the city’s existing facilities, which would reduce the number of city jails from 12 to 4 and decrease the city’s jail bed capacity by almost 80 percent. 

In order to achieve that mass reduction in size, Hoskins says the plan must be executed alongside major statewide policy changes. This would include ending cash bail as well as reforming parole and probation, as the majority of the city’s jail population is made up of people either awaiting trial or who are reincarcerated over parole or probation violations. 

To help shape the new facilities, the de Blasio administration developed a Justice Implementation Task Force composed of working groups that focus on issues ranging from design to culture. The process, the city says, aims to ensure that the new facilities are “grounded in dignity and respect,” yet a sizable coalition of advocates fear that any major decarceration plan cannot include new jails, and that a ‘humane jail’ is an oxymoron. 

While Shut Down Rikers officially disbanded in 2016, organizers associated with the group have continued to advocate as members of other coalitions. Soon after the announcement of the borough-based jail plan, organizers created No New Jails NYC (NNJ), a coalition committed to opposing any new facility construction. NNJ argued jails do not correlate to public safety and that the $8 billion meant to construct four new facilities should be rerouted to care via community-based services. 

Organizers point to the 2008 closure of Cincinnati’s Queensgate Correctional Facility as an example. The city eliminated 26 percent of its jail capacity and saw a 38 percent drop in violent crime, a 41 percent drop in felony arrests, and a 32 percent drop in misdemeanor arrests. 

“In this natural experiment, we saw that closing a jail can dramatically improve public safety,” wrote the coalition.

In 2019, the coalition released a comprehensive plan outlining their stance, as well as a variety of judicial and legislative pathways for reducing the city’s jail population enough such that new facilities would be technically unnecessary. 

While NNJ has been dismissed by some lawmakers and members of the public as touting unrealistic goals, the coalition’s impact has already been substantial. At an October 2019 hearing about the city’s Close Rikers plan, advocates from the coalition critiqued the plan for its lack of a legal commitment to ensuring Rikers would not be used as a carceral site. 

Advocates argued that in the absence of a legal commitment, incoming mayoral administrations could simply construct new jails on the Island. In response, the City Council and the Mayor’s office filed a joint land use application that would alter the city’s zoning map and formally prohibit the construction of any future jails there after 2026. 

The city council passed Intro 1592-A in February 2021, officially transferring Rikers to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, a process that will be completed by August 2027.

NNJ has also garnered support from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as a cohort of New York legal professionals who not only agree that new jails will not make the city safer but who also challenge the idea that new facilities will truly be better than Rikers—particularly given that Rikers itself was built under the guise of “reform.”

In 2019, legal staff across the city signed a letter of support for NNJ writing that “it is delusional to pretend the city’s newest jails will be different. There are zero historical examples of incarceration, policing, or surveillance that did not become more and more oppressive with time.”

‘A Radically Different Experience Of Justice

When discussing community investment amidst decarceration, the associated structures that are often cited are schools, supermarkets, and community centers—important assets that help meet people’s basic needs and, in so doing, reduce violence and harm. However, abolitionist architecture also must address the reality that, in the absence of prisons and jails, harm will still occur and that dedicated structures are critical in repairing the breach. 

Such spaces can illustrate how abolition itself is not just about tearing down structures but is also about building a new society in its wake.

Creating spaces where that reparation can occur is the core work of Deanna Van Buren and her architectural firm, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), which creates community spaces for restorative justice. DJDS projects, which are always co-created with local residents, have taken on a variety of forms ranging from refugee buses that pick up women who have been recently released from prison or jail to pop-up villages that help local micro entrepreneurs promote their businesses. 

DJDS’s first project was the Near Westside Peacemaking Project in Syracuse, New York, which repurposed a vacant building and has since become a beloved community space. Designed for the Center of Court Innovation, the Project is the first space in the country located outside of Indigenous communities that is designed for the implementation of Native American peacemaking processes.

Here, conflict is resolved outside of the traditional criminal justice context. While every project is developed following a series of community conversations in order for DJDS to assess the needs and desires of local residents, Van Buren says there are necessary features that must be implemented in all restorative justice spaces. 

New projects, for instance, must be located on neutral territory to ensure that people feel safe enough to even come into the space. 

“Some of the things that we’re learning is that you need to be walking into an environment that is not sterile,” said Van Buren. “That there are visual distractions– things to look at, touch, and feel and that the environment feels really domestic. That’s why you always have a kitchen [as] you have to have a place to break bread and you have to have people be able to smell the coffee brewing. It’s a radically different experience of justice, for example, as opposed to going to a courtroom, right? I mean which would you choose?”

Peacemaking infrastructure also has to feature space that supports our natural “fight, flight, and freeze responses” meaning that there are designated, trauma-informed spaces where people can go to cool off when the discussion becomes too heavy. Van Buren says those can be created by attaching outdoor spaces or ensuring that the indoor environment is able to be easily manipulated even if that just means opening a window to let in fresh air or rearranging the chairs to shift the energy of a room. 

One of the ongoing challenges of creating these spaces however remains balancing privacy with transparency. That means both ensuring that those outside of the space cannot see into it but that those inside can be aware of what’s occurring beyond the walls. 

“People get very anxious with solid doors and solid walls, where they can’t see what’s happening on the other side or they can’t see where they’re going, or what’s going to happen to them,” said Van Buren, “and that’s a trauma from criminal justice architecture. So a lot of translucent layers, things that slide and move are some things that we find are often necessary.”

The traumas that these considerations work to redress are a product of prisons, jails, courtrooms, and police stations. In carceral facilities broadly, design can reinforce notions of authority: who is above, who is below, and who ultimately has power over another’s life. 

In addition to designing new spaces committed to restorative justice, DJDS has also been invited to help repurpose prisons and jails that will be shuttered. This is a newer body of work for Van Buren given that facility closure is a rather recent undertaking for most cities and states.

In 2019, DJDS was brought in to help the city of Atlanta develop a proposal for how the Atlanta City Detention Center could be reimagined into a holistic community space following its closure.  DJDS first conducted an extensive community engagement process and has since analyzed those learnings, developing four potential proposals for the city that range from repurposing the existing infrastructure to completely demolishing it and building anew.

While working with existing spaces might seem easier, Van Buren says that they pose unique challenges due to the nature of carceral facilities themselves, where almost 40 percent of the exterior prevents light from entering. 

“You have to rethink the whole thing so that it does basic stuff like lets light in,” said Van Buren. “So I get why folks emotionally just want it to come down because even if you go into an empty piece of infrastructure—I’ve been with community members—where there’s nobody incarcerated anymore you can still feel the trauma. They start to cry and some have had to leave the tour of the building. That’s how bad it is.”

“So it’s hard for me sometimes to imagine that we can even successfully repurpose some of these things but I think it is an option on the table due to the cost of infrastructure. Sometimes when we’re talking about a jail, often these pieces of infrastructure are in our downtowns, they’re in the Justice Core and they’re almost like a wall or a barrier to creating a positive urban fabric.”

When asked about what could be created in a neighborhood like the South Bronx, where local restorative justice programs have seen success but do not have a dedicated infrastructure, Van Buren says that blueprint would have to be developed with the community and launched by “just listening and talking to folks and getting a sense of what the sociopolitical context is.” That specificity is what ensures the success of DJDS projects. 

A detailed aerial view of Rikers Island. (Wikimedia Commons / United States Geological Survey)

From Prison Construction Boom To Abolitionist Architecture

South Bronx advocates have opposed local jail construction before. In 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration proposed the development of the Oak Point Detention Center, a $375 million, 2,000-bed jail that would’ve been located in Hunts Point.

Then-Department of Corrections Commissioner Marty Horn, who crafted the proposal, argued that the jail could be built by 2013 and would help relieve pressure on Rikers’ dilapidated facilities. Community advocates alongside local and national organizations formed a coalition in opposition to the jail citing many of the same concerns as present day organizers, as well as worries about the toxicity of the proposed site. 

In 2008, the city withdrew their proposal amidst the pushback. 

In an interview that year with the New York Times about the victory, Kellie Terry-Supelveda, the Executive Managing Director of The Point, a local social services organization that opposed the jail, said “it goes to show what working with a community that is highly organized can do.”

These emerging and successful campaigns to reject new carceral facilities are partially a response to the vast number of prisons and jails already in existence across the country. The uniform nature of prisons and jails has also accelerated the speed with which they are constructed. 

Between 1984 and 2005, a new prison or jail was built every 8.5 days in the United States and between 1970 and 2017, the country’s jail capacity grew by 277 percent. While some of the tough-on-crime policies that helped fuel the prison and jail boom have been waning in past decades, the nation still spends $4.6 billion per year on correctional construction. 

2021 has seen a resurgence in tough-on-crime rhetoric from police, media, and elected officials following a national uptick in homicides. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ victory in New York City’s mayoral primary election also signals the endurance of more conservative policies around crime. The candidate adamantly opposes defunding the police and has expressed support for the use of stop-and-frisk when employed “legally.”

In the past decade alone, the number of jail beds increased by over 86,000 even while the nation’s jail population fell by roughly 40,000. Roughly 70 percent of these facilities have been developed in rural areas, often under the assumption that they would help provide employment and attract further development as a “prison town.” 

In truth however, massive construction and facility maintenance projects primarily benefit the construction companies and architectural firms involved. It is only recently that major design and architectural associations have begun to speak out about the harms of building new carceral spaces. 

In September 2020, The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-NY) released a statement along with new policies and associated programming that called upon architects to “no longer design unjust, cruel or harmful spaces of incarceration within the current United States justice system.” The chapter also shared that they will no longer support work that perpetuates incarceration but will instead highlight designs that promote reform, alternatives to incarceration, or restorative justice. 

While the chapter still has not taken a stance on the four borough jail plan specifically, their statement acknowledged the limitations of attempts to modernize carceral facilities, stating that “ultimately it is beyond the role of design professionals to alleviate an inherently unjust system.”

AIA-NY’s announcement came after more than a year of campaigning by organizers from Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADSPR), a national organization that advocates for ecological, justice oriented, and sustainable design. Since 2014, ADPSR has petitioned AIA’s national body to ban the design of spaces for execution and solitary confinement, succeeding in December 2020. 

The wider condemnation of all prison and jail construction taken up by the organization’s New York Chapter has yet to be adopted on the national level, but it is the focus of ADPSR’s Prison Design Boycott/Alternatives to Incarceration Campaign, which the group launched in 2004. In a 2007 essay, current ADSPR secretary Raphael Sperry wrote that the refusal to build solitary confinement spaces and death chambers is a critical first step towards that larger goal as “challenging the legitimacy of harsh punishment opens the door to challenging the legitimacy of other aspects of the criminal justice system as well.”

“The struggle to abolish these practices,” Sperry goes on to write, “creates an arena where larger visions of abolition can enter.”

Necessary Compromises Or Irreversible Concessions?

New facility construction has been a primary point of divergence amongst advocates who have long called for Rikers’ closure. Even those who don’t identify with the No New Jails Coalition hold varying levels of support for the new plan. Some see it as a necessary and unfortunate compromise, while others consider it a meaningful step towards decarceration and, eventually, abolition. 

“We know the reality of the system as formerly incarcerated people,” said Hoskins in regards to JLUSA’s support for the Mayor’s plan. “We didn’t believe that we were compromising.” 

For Hoskins, there are two approaches to abolition: one which she describes as “all or nothing” and the other which “works towards the zero sum.” The latter approach, she said, is what JLUSA’s decarceration plan entails with the hope of pushing the city towards a future without prisons and jails. 

When it comes to realizing that vision and ensuring that these new facilities don’t reinforce existing problems, Hoskins says “design will be huge.” 

In 2016, JLUSA members began to ideate what an effective alternative to Rikers might look like. Hoskins says that the main concerns were the elimination of spaces for solitary confinement and improved lines of sight for staff, the latter of which makes the complex particularly violent. 

Most crucially, however, supporters of the four borough plan are most concerned that the new facilities be less isolated and easier to access for loved ones and legal counsel. 

In an online forum hosted by Freedom Agenda in May 2021, Dr. Victoria A. Phillips, a longtime criminal justice reform advocate, said that while she doesn’t like the idea of creating new jails, having those who are detained closer and more visible to the public can help the community monitor conditions and watch out for them. 

Phillips cited the public outcry around conditions at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center in 2019, when pedestrians could hear the cries of those inside as they suffered from extreme cold, lack of water, spoiled food, and other deplorable conditions. 

Existing proposals for these new facilities also argue that proximity to mental health care and other supportive services will better attend to the “context and continuity of people’s lives,” giving them the help needed to successfully reintegrate into their communities upon release. The cohort of designers who are currently conceiving the new structures have also committed to employing more modern designs, child-friendly areas, a more inviting visitors lobby, and greater access to natural light.

In a press release announcing the team of architects behind the new jail plan, Elizabeth Glazer, director for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, described the buildings as “important civic structures, reflecting the ambition of the City’s justice reforms, ensuring the dignity and well-being of those who are incarcerated, work and visit them, and integrating into the city centers where they are located.”

Hoskins believes such a malleable design will allow the spaces to be converted into affordable housing once the jail population lowers enough that correctional facilities are no longer necessary. 

This assertion undergirds Hoskins and her peers’ belief that the plan will work towards abolition. But it stands in stark contrast to the core message of No New Jails advocates, that if the city continues to build jails, the city will inevitably fill them, and will do so indefinitely.

The Urgency Of The Moment

While there may not yet be a clearly replicable template, the abolition architecture movement gives us a glimpse into what it looks like to think beyond the narrow options currently on the table in discussions about Rikers. 

The conversation is often framed as either closing Rikers with the inevitable concession that new facilities will be built or not closing Rikers at all. However, there is an opportunity to consider how to both embrace the call for no new jails while investing in restorative design. 

The idea that Rikers can be closed without the borough-based jail plan is beginning to catch on among some public figures. While Janos Marton, a former candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, is no longer in the race, he still stands by his platform that the city can reduce it’s jail population by 80 percent, rendering Rikers and any new facilities obsolete.

Marton says that investing in mental health infrastructure, passing state-level criminal justice reforms, and pressuring district attorney’s to view jail as a “last resort only to be used in exceptional circumstances” can lower the jail population substantially. 

“When you see the fruits of that labor, when you see how low the numbers can go, that gives you more options from a policy perspective,” said Marton. “The city, as well as the people that advised the city, for years said that there’s no way to get the population below 5,000 and that informed the way the city approached the closing of Rikers. Then all of a sudden comes bail reform and pre-COVID we were down below 4,000.”

“It just goes to show that this has very much become a debate that’s been focused on buildings, been focused on personalities but at the end of the day it is about how low can we get the number of people in jail on a daily basis and let’s let that inform our policies.”

Perhaps most urgent, however, is ensuring that the city’s incoming mayor prioritizes closing Rikers. Otherwise, the plan, the conversations, and the debates surrounding it will terminate along with the de Blasio administration.

“My only hope would be that as we stare down this election cycle that activists who support getting people out of jail and closing Rikers can look past some of their prior differences and recognize that they are the people who care the most about getting it right,” said Marton, “and there’s a huge incentive to work together and not carry the personal scars of past conflict into future policy debates.”

“There has been for the past few years a shared political understanding that Rikers will close and the question has been how fast and what replaces it. I don’t think we should take for granted that that will be– depending on who wins the mayor’s race and other races — a baseline assumption. So I think this moment really requires people to sort of recognize who else cares about this issue and try to work together.”

Indeed, the presumptive mayor-elect Eric Adams has expressed support for Rikers’ closure and on a June campaign stop in the Bronx committed to closing and sinking the Vernon Bain facility within his first year of taking office. Adams, however, supports the construction of new borough-based facilities.

For many organizers, heeding Marton’s call to reconcile these internal divisions could be risky if it means committing to new facilities that might entrench and expand the carceral system. Abolitionist architecture and restorative design might offer the opportunity to take perhaps an equally big risk—but one that bets on our ability to deal with conflict in settings that are nothing like what the system currently offers, and thus, treats people with more dignity than the system ever could. 

In the case of the Bronx facility in particular, it might also mean using history as a blueprint for what can happen when communities create—sometimes by force—what it is that they need most. 

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a writer based in New York City and she is currently a features reporter at Prism. Her writing focuses on the criminal legal system and its impact on Black women and girls, racial justice, and Black history. Visit her website at https://www.tamarsarai.com/.