I am lucky to often be able to ignore how I take up space. My body is small, and, as a light-skinned, non-Black woman, I am seen as non-threatening in the eyes of mainstream society.
The physical environments that I move through are made for my success, not for my containment. Institutionalized regulation of bodies in America is constructed as being for my benefit; my body is rarely the target of policing. My privilege distances me (both physically and socially) from spaces of incarceration. However, this is not the case for everyone.
The mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, first announced his plan to close Rikers Island, an 88-year-old jail complex in the city’s East River, in October 2018. Four new jails, one for each borough (excluding Staten Island) would open in its place. The New York City Council announced that it would fast-track the approval process, and a year later, it voted to shut down Rikers Island. The new jails are projected to open in 2026.
In the 2019 fiscal year, the New York City Department of Correction held nearly 8,000 inmates each day on average; nearly all of those inmates were located on Rikers Island. The decision to close Rikers will directly affect the lives of thousands of inmates and their families, friends, lawyers, and loved ones, as well as thousands of other New York City citizens who interact with the Department of Correction. It will affect residents in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens who will see the construction of new jails in their respective downtowns next to their borough courts; and construction workers employed by the City Council working on these projects.
Rikers is notorious for the number of people who have died within its walls, many of whom had never been convicted of a crime. In the current coronavirus pandemic, incarcerated people on Rikers are being unjustly held, without resources like soap, in an institution that actively supports the spread of COVID-19, given that the reported infection rate at the start of April in Rikers was at least six times that in New York City. Rikers Island is a jail that failed. New York City has taken it upon itself to replace it with jails that work.
I was first made aware of the intended new jails by a member of No New Jails NYC in 2018, a group organized around closing Rikers without opening up any new New York jails. However, I never gave the Mayor’s plan much attention until this year. I was introduced to De Blasio’s plan through the lens of design. In my architecture history course, I learned about how, in the past, architecture has furthered both oppression and justice. Rikers became the focus of an assignment of mine. I wanted to understand how the systematic racism and oppression were manifested in the architecture of such a facility itself.
"Rikers became the focus of an assignment of mine. I wanted to understand how the systematic racism and oppression were manifested in the architecture of such a facility itself."
The design undertaking of four new jails to replace Rikers Island represents the crucial role that design has in maintaining, or changing, social inequality. This collaboration became glaringly obvious everywhere around me, from the maintenance of city streets to the design and propagation of credit card-only stores to the architecture of public school buildings.
Along with new programs, the design of New York’s new jails is supposed to ease the experience of inmates and to streamline the justice system by making visitation easier—increasing access to the court, decreasing the number of inmates, and better integrating the jail with the community. Initial architectural drawings show a “community jail,” dubbed a Justice Hub, with plenty of outdoor space, lots of sunlight, open floor plans, community-accessible areas, and physical proximity to the courthouse.
However, I—along with many others—remain unconvinced by “better” jails.
Nice, well designed jails will still disproportionately house Black inmates, the majority of whom will be unconvicted but unable to post bail, targeted by both legislature and law enforcement.
Can design take an active role in countering institutionalized oppression, specifically anti-Black racism foundational to the American nation? Or will design always simply act as a band-aid over injustice, if not worsening the wound—such as helping to create shiny buildings that deflect money and attention from underlying reform.
"Can design take an active role in countering institutionalized oppression, specifically anti-Black racism foundational to the American nation? Or will design always simply act as a band-aid over injustice?"
Like most other parts of American society, incarceration is an industry. Private prisons and companies that use prison labor are able to profit directly off of prisoners; politicians and law enforcement profit indirectly by using racialized fear of crime and danger to further their campaigns (New York City mayors especially, just look at former mayor Mike Bloomberg). Nicely designed new prisons still sustain the exploitation of (mainly Black) inmates through the carceral system.
As I learn about design, I am also learning to critically examine the spaces I take up. I learn about how my identity as a person with privilege and power not only manifests in the intangible (such as intellectual capital that I’ll symbolically acquire after I get my degree) but in my body, what I touch, and where I stand.
Design, obviously, is not always good; we just have to look at the new New York jails. The design practices involved in creating the new jails loyally streamline American race-based capitalism. However, I see the potential that design has to re-examine the purpose of incarceration, the use of space, and the regulation of bodies that we currently accept as normal.
I do believe that design can create change, in prisons and in every other part of life as well.
I frequently take for granted the spaces I am in and the things I use. I forget, like many of us do, that each object I hold, each place I sit, each app I use, and each room I enter was not wished into existence, fully formed. Their look, feel, and structure are the product of intentional human decisions—and those decisions are affected by power, privilege, feeling, desire, and more.
I am working on engaging critically and kindly with the world around me. I ask myself: Where do the spaces I occupy come from? Who are they for? Who has power in and over them? Finally, how can I contribute to those spaces—by actively participating in them or by leaving them—to help them be more fair to people and the land?