A view of Rikers from an airplane
In 1908, critics called the new model jails being planned for Rikers Island (seen here in an aerial view in 2017) "palaces for prisoners." Now it has the same notoriety as the facility it was built to replace. Mike Segar/Reuters

When Rikers Island jails were designed, critics called them “palaces for prisoners.” New York City is planning replacements, but will they be any better?

When confronted with public uproar over New York City’s teeming, deteriorating, and violence-breeding island jails, local government vowed to do better. They promised a new penal institution: This time, however it would be cleaner and safer, an atonement for the sins of the city’s dark carceral past.

Instead, they created the Rikers Island jails.

Since it opened in 1932, Rikers has become notorious for dysfunction and violence, the complaints a near-duplicate of those about its predecessor, a network of detention facilities on Roosevelt Island. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has made a similar proposal as his 20th century forebears, vowing to close the Rikers facilities: Jails on the island will be torn down, and new, more humane jails will rise in their place.

Last week the City Planning Commission approved the project, kick-starting the public land-use review process. The plan will next have to pass a committee vote and a full council vote by the New York City Council.

De Blasio praised the Planning Commission approval as, “a big step forward in the process of closing Rikers Island and creating a modern community-based jail system that is smaller, safer and fairer.”

The new plan seems unassailable at first glance: Supplant Rikers with modern detention facilities, one in each of New York’s five boroughs except Staten Island. Rehabilitation and contemporary social science practices will be at the forefront of the design, says the de Blasio administration, which will create what penal architects call a “normative environment” by increasing natural light and reducing noise.

The proposal also calls for opening the ground floor to a community use, like an art gallery or a health clinic, in an attempt to integrate the jails into the neighborhood. If that doesn’t seem radical enough, a 2017 report by the Van Alen Institute and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform calls one model of these prospective buildings “Justice Hubs” rather than “jails.”

Despite the seeming purity of its goals, the plan has met controversy, opposition, and logistical hurdles.

Implementing it would take 10 years and require driving down the city’s inmate population to at most 5,000—in recent years, this figure has approached 10,000. The cost? Nearly $9 billion. Every borough’s community board has rejected the plan, as have Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.

And then there is the collective of prison abolitionists that rallied to advocate for the shutdown of Rikers as an end goal; they want to do away with all prisons and jails. And while eliminating jails altogether seems a radical step, the abolitionists might point out that the de Blasio administration’s plan is treading an analogous path to the one that led to Rikers.

“De Blasio’s plan is almost verbatim to the same argument that's been used to build awful jails in the city going back to the 18th century,” said Jarrod Shanahan, who co-authored the forthcoming book Rikers: A Social History of New York City’s Island of the Poor with Jayne Mooney. “Basically every jail reform in the city's history, going back to at least 1797 has had the same: ‘Oh, we have a great idea, the academics have solved the problem, we have this new social science and we’re going to do it right this time.’ And every time it’s a disaster.”

An 1853 engraving by William Wade of the penitentiary at Blackwell’s Island.  (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

In the 19th century, violence and filth festered at the detention facilities on what is now Roosevelt Island (known as Blackwell’s Island until 1921 and Welfare Island until 1971). Porous borders between facilities meant that those arrested for violent crimes often mingled with individuals arrested for petty violations. Although jails are intended to house people awaiting trial or serving short sentences, inmates often spent years on the island, if not the rest of their lives (as has also been the case for those on Rikers). After years of scandals, public outcry against the facilities grew so clamorous that in the late 1800s, New York politicians were forced to act.

The city chose the 90-acre sliver of land on the East River, wedged between the Bronx and Queens. New York purchased Rikers Island from the descendants of a Dutch settler in 1884, and in 1886, The New York Times wrote that Rikers would be the site of “an enormous model penitentiary, ample in size to serve for many years to come and which in all its plans and parts should be the most perfect prison in the world.” The commissioners in charge of the project, the article said, “entered into an energetic effort to obtain the best attainable knowledge concerning modern improvements in such institutions.”

But much had to be done to prepare Rikers Island for the penitentiary. “It was literally a wasteland,” Shanahan said.

Rats ran rampant. Fires spontaneously sparked. Nearby neighborhoods complained of the stench. Prisoners labored under gunpoint on the newly purchased island, unloading barges of the city’s garbage and picking through rotting material for dry rubbish or ash, which was used to expand the island’s shoreline and make space for the new prison (Rikers Island is now approximately 400 acres). The New York Times supported the use of prison labor, writing: “Not only will they have all that labor free, but they are even paid board by the State.”

Photo by Percy Loomis Sperr of the refuse heaps on Rikers Island that were cleared by prison labor, c. 1925, 1937. (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

At that time, the Auburn model, a penal methodology based on New York’s Auburn Prison, was gaining traction. Under this model, prisoners labored by day and endured complete isolation by night. Proponents argued not only for the rehabilitative and disciplinary nature of forced labor, but also its economic benefits.

“The selling of the items that were made essentially at no-cost could make the prison very inexpensive to run,” said Richard Wener, a professor of environmental psychology at New York University and author of The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails: Creating Humane Spaces in Secure Settings.

The city intended for Rikers to follow such a system. But rather than becoming a model for a humane and efficiently run penal institution, for much of its existence Rikers has been synonymous with abuse and hopelessness—an example of failed prison reform. (This followed the pattern set by the Blackwell jails, which were intended to improve on the penitentiary at Bellevue, which in turn replaced the city’s original 18th century jail at what is presently known as the Tweed Courthouse.)

A proposed design for penal facilities to replace Rikers. (Justice in Design)

The new jails the de Blasio administration has proposed are designed under a penal methodology called direct supervision. First developed in the 1970s, this design and security model places a correctional officer in a central day room, with cells wrapping around that core residential space. Doing so, the thinking goes, will improve lines of sight for the officer, who is then able to directly see and therefore de-escalate tensions between inmates before fights break out. Both the independent commission and the Van Alen Institute recommend the direct supervision model for the borough-based jails.

“’Direct’ in this case means not between bars and between windows, but actually being in the space with the inmates,” said Wener. “They’re making sure there’s nobody in a hidden corner hurting themselves or hurting somebody else.”

Other than direct supervision, the Van Alen Institute’s report also recommends other design aspects that can challenge the typically harsh conditions of incarceration. Architects should keep the management of “sensory stimulation” in mind, for example, by increasing access to sunlight and the outdoors, reducing noise levels, maintaining consistent temperatures and providing a steady circulation of air.

“The more the facility is similar to normal ways of living in normal places of living, the less someone is going to feel cut off from the real world,” Wener said, “and the more likely they are to have a better time reintegrating once they get out.”

Still, the main adversaries of de Blasio’s jail plan argue that direct supervision and the other suggested improvements are merely cosmetic changes to an unjust system whose cruelest components have remained largely untouched for centuries.

As Wener says, “As much as I’m interested as an environmental psychologist in architecture and how it affects behavior, the thing that you always have to keep in mind is that you have to look at the whole context of how somebody’s there and why they’re there and how they’re being treated,” he said. “The architecture is one piece of that.”

It seems unlikely that the de Blasio plan will not pass the City Council review, as the council members representing the neighborhoods where the new jails will be located have cautiously expressed their support. Meanwhile, the Department of Design and Construction is searching for local construction input on the borough-based jail’s design-build program. In June, the department awarded a $107 million contract to a joint venture of AECOM and Hill International to manage the jails’ construction. Yet the fight is unlikely to be over.

Shanahan, who said he was jailed for a month at Rikers’ Eric M. Taylor Center in 2016, isn’t optimistic. “There’s an astounding literature around, ‘Oh, what color to paint the walls so there are fewer gang fights?’ and, ‘Oh, how much sunlight is the right amount of sunlight?,’ and it’s just completely detached from reality. It ignores the social function of the jail and the role that the jail plays in structurally racist class domination. Unfortunately, the history of incarceration is in very many ways the history of progressive penology.”

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