Dear Neighbor,

In 2017, then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to closing the Rikers Island jail complex, by proposing “borough-based” jails. The $8.3 billion project meant four new jails would be built across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, housing a total of 3,300 people. The Manhattan jail would be located in Chinatown, with construction lasting until at least 2027; the proposed 40-story jail would be the tallest in the world. New Yorkers, especially those who live and work in Chinatown are overwhelmingly opposed to the plan. Most New Yorkers don’t want a jail built in their neighborhoods, but at the same time they want Rikers to close down due to the history of violence, deaths and poor living conditions for the inmates.

Photo courtesy of Garrett Jacobs

But what if there was an alternative plan to the borough-based jails? Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Garrett Jacobs, director of advocacy at Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), a nonprofit architecture and real estate development firm dedicated to ending mass incarceration and structural inequity, about how New York City can benefit from having an ‘alternative space’ to the borough-based jail

The following has been edited for clarity. 

Epicenter: How does having a jail or prison in the neighborhood negatively affect a community?

Jacobs:Jails are buildings and places built to isolate individuals, to separate families, to break up communities. Environments of carceral facilities impact everyone involved, including those who are incarcerated, their families, their networks of care and the people that work there really negatively. They are places where punishment and trauma are often inflicted. When we think about putting them in community centers, they become monuments and reminders for everyone who has been involved in that system that trauma is there, it happened and can happen again to you. It’s also not just the jail that pops up in a community. It has to have its support network of police stations, courthouses and also bail bonds that are not generative economically for the health and well-being of the community, but rather, around punishment and extraction of resources, time and energy from the community. 

Epicenter: DJDS focuses on building ‘alternative spaces’ — what exactly does that mean? 

Jacobs: Alternative spaces involve an ecosystem of care infrastructure, that when created would end systems of mass incarceration at the scale of the neighborhood, city, county and state. Some of these spaces include spaces for survivors of violence, many types of specialty housing, specialized education spaces, community schools, spaces for behavioral health and substance abuse, spaces for youth, reentry and diversion spaces and infrastructure. These spaces would be a restorative and reinvestment in the community.

A peacemaking circle at the Near Westside Peacemaking Center. Photo: David Revette. Photo courtesy of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces.

Epicenter: What would justice look like in an alternative space?

Jacobs: I can give you an example of the Near Westside Peacemaking Project that we helped create in Syracuse, New York, with the Center for Court Innovation. This is the first time a native and indigenous practice in peacemaking was introduced into a non-native community in Syracuse. What this is used for is an alternative to booking and sentencing. Because the building exists, the program can foster a sense of community by bringing people together to improve social cohesion around conflict resolution. Law enforcement can choose to refer cases to be resolved in conflict resolution circles instead of in court. Half of the referrals that the Near Westside Peacemaking Project gets are from local schools, so instead of sending kids through the juvenile justice system, they’re brought to a community space where they can resolve conflict. 

Epicenter: What kinds of conflicts and crimes are typically resolved in an alternative space?

Jacobs: Both lifestyle crimes and lower-level misdemeanors are usually dealt with in these peacemaking centers and restorative justice spaces. Common Justice in New York is an organization that is doing restorative justice with felony-level charges as well.

Epicenter: How does having an ‘alternative space’ positively impact the community it’s located in? 

Jacobs: Buildings represent the values of the systems they have. So if we’re talking about having alternative spaces which are about restoring, repairing, reinvesting, then you have centers of reinvestment and community, instead of extraction of time and energy. You can have an entire ecosystem of support similar to what we’ve seen in Syracuse, where the project not only serves as conflict resolution but it’s also become a community space. It’s a hub where people have their Quinceañeras, where community groups go to gather, to study their neighborhoods. Alternative spaces become a community symbol of ownership and reinvestment because they are direct investments in the community. 

Epicenter: Are there existing alternative spaces that are working in other big cities?

Jacobs:The Care First, Jails Last initiative in Los Angeles County, [California], is really powerful and helps bring inspiration for our ecosystem of care infrastructure that we’re thinking about. It is one of the first plans we’ve seen where the approach to justice has been led by an argument of healthy well-being for communities, focused on mental health. This approach helps pull together the argument of [justice] being a public health issue—we need to be using public health information when we think about justice as care. The initiative inspired the county to establish new departments that are associated with health to lead this initiative. We’re working with a new department: Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI), to help them think about the infrastructure implications of their new programming. If you’re thinking about having teams of ‘violence interrupters’ and ‘peacemakers’ and ‘credible messengers’, they need different types of home bases rather than the punitive justice system that has police stations and courthouses. There need to be other de-escalation spaces and stations with care and healing that are just as prevalent and networked around the city. We’re working to understand how we can do this in Los Angeles County and how we can do a pilot project.

Epicenter: What can New York City learn from your project in Los Angeles County?

Jacobs:What’s amazing in Los Angeles County is that there’s also work happening to reimagine the youth justice system, so as the ATI department is getting built, there’s also going to be a new department of youth development established. It is going to take the juvenile system out from under probation and parole into its own department that is not under the current justice system. That is something that New York can learn from because in New York, the ATI projects are out of the mayor’s office and at the state level they’re run by probation and parole. One thing New York can learn from is how Los Angeles has established new departments for this work and how it’s tied to health outcomes such as mental health and public health.

Epicenter: How have communities reacted to alternatives to incarceration? 

Jacobs: With the Near Westside Peacemaking Center the community was engaged to figure out where the building should be. As I said before, the building represents the values [of the systems a community has], but the processes by which the buildings come about also represent the values of the community. So if [the building] was about restorative justice, the process of building it should be about getting everyone involved. We take that into architecture and say, how can the community be involved in envisioning what this space will look like, which is very different from how jails and prisons and courthouses are created. It’s really about engaging the community around envisioning this new system. We’re not going to say this is what it’s going to look like, but rather, what should it look like? What should it have? What type of programming will it have? How can architects and developers bring those people together to make this happen? 

Having an alternative method to incarceration may be difficult to imagine for many New York City residents. To find out more about what this can look like, visit the DJDS website for more information on their projects and how you can support them. 

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