In the fall of 2019 New York’s City Council approved plans to close Rikers Island, one of the world’s largest and most notorious jails.  The decision was a result of a long-fought, still ongoing, battle to push the city toward reckoning with an unjust, and demonstrably racist, mass incarceration system.  The city settled on a plan to replace the remote island complex with four “borough-based” jails. The new jails, the city said, will adopt the newest best practices, particularly more progressive northern European models, and be “safer, smaller and more humane”.  Our team was invited by the NYC Department of Design and Construction's Town + Gown program to contribute to the research that will inform these new institutions.

But the year that followed reinforced our hypothesis that “better prisons” are not enough.  

2020 saw Black Lives Matter protests erupt around the world. Quarantined citizens were moved to march by the killings of George Flloyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Jacob Blake, and more, at the hands of police. As educators, training future designers of the built environment, this research team set out to go deeper, to investigate how we might leverage our cities—our streets, sidewalks, buildings, and public places—to end mass incarceration, while promoting equity and beginning the process of healing in communities disproportionately affected by the carceral system. We frame this project as an urgent infrastructure project, An Infrastructure for Restorative Justice.

The initial studio brought us to two overarching conclusions. The first is an approach to and scope for programming, which we summarize as being captured by five “touchpoints”—Advocacy, Prevention, Intervention, Mitigation, Re-entry. The second is the spatialization of these programs which, we propose, need to be woven into the urban/neighborhood fabric at various scales and positions in the public realm.

In the first year students developed conceptual designs around programming that supports each of the "touchpoints." Individual students worked across different scales of intervention, including what we defined as Hubs, Nodes, and Satellites.

Hubs are located centrally within the borough and adjacent to the courts and jails—they are the headquarters of advocacy movements and provide a face to the alternative restorative justice institutions available to those in need.

Nodes are located within the neighborhood and aim to be familiar, trusted, & integrated into everyday life.

Satellites are small, temporary or mobile interventions inserted within existing neighborhood places.

In subsequent semesters the studio has built on the framework developed in the first, by linking up with organizations at the forefront of criminal justice reform to apply our framework to real projects, real sites, and real communities.  Along with NYC DDC, the studio has partnered with the NYC Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, and the Center for Court Innovation to explore opportunities for practical interventions.  The resulting projects ranged in scope and scale from mobile, street-based installations to new Community Justice Centers in Far Rockaway and Queensbridge, and propositions for a redesigned Bronx Housing Court, including a new Problem Solving Court. In 2022, students worked with the Staten Island Family Court to develop the schematic design for an adjacent Community Justice Hub.

In documenting and sharing this work, we aim to provoke our colleagues in academia,  to encourage a new generation of designers to exercise their agency and criticality, and use their work to advance social change.

The Team

An Infrastructure for Restorative Justice is a project Darrick Borowski and Rik Ekström, architects and design studio professors in School of Visual Arts' Interior Design: Built Environments department.

The project was developed as a multi-year design studio agenda with support and guidance from Department Chair, Dr. Carol Bentel and Ambar Margarida. An Infrastructure for Restorative Justice studio is typically conducted during the spring semester and includes sophomore undergraduate students within the SVA ID:BE program. Partnerships with and technical support from NYC DDC, NYC Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, and the Center for Court Innovation have been, and continue to be, critical to the success of the studio.

Students who have contributed to An Infrastructure for Restorative Justice studio include Alicia Ng, Raymond Xie, Yuhan Wang, Chuyan Zhou, Meixi Xu, Qian Wang, Annabella Vilchis, Ju Hyung Jeon, Hsiang-Ting Huang, Huanyu Kuang, Stephanie Schiff, Brianna Toussaint, Yunfei Zhang, Jayden Perez, Siyu Liu, Wenxi Liu, Xueyi Wang, and Yini Wang.