TEN STORIES HIGH and clad in razor wire, the Brooklyn House of Detention, closed since 2003, is considered a hulking eyesore by local residents. But New York City's Department of Corrections wants to make it bigger. Two years ago, Martin Horn, the corrections commissioner, announced plans to reopen the facility and double its 749-bed capacity with a new addition. Located on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, the jail is convenient to the courthouse—and uncomfortably close, community members feel, to their brownstone neighborhoods with upscale cafés and shops. To appease residents, Horn proposed a solution. What about wrapping the jail with commercial uses?

At an AIA-sponsored event in New York this past February, architects saw what a “jail with retail” might look like. The city's Department of Design and Construction asked Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to create a rendering of an improved façade with street-level shops and a grocery store. The city then issued an RFP for official design proposals for the development. It plans to reopen the expanded jail in 2012.

  • The Bridewell workhouse opens in London. Soon English workhouses become known for their deplorable living conditions.

    Credit: Corbis

    The Bridewell workhouse opens in London. Soon English workhouses become known for their deplorable living conditions.

The House of Detention represents a small but growing movement in the oft-overlooked field of justice architecture: jails that don't look like jails. James Gondles, executive director of the American Correctional Association, says the trend is gaining momentum, particularly in large urban areas. Gondles was a sheriff himself in Arlington, Va., where he helped oversee the construction of a new jail—the Arlington County Detention Center—that followed this maxim. “We didn't want it to look like a jail, and it doesn't. It looks like an office building,” Gondles says.

This exterior treatment is just part of the story. The last 25 years have seen a steady revision in the thinking behind justice design, culminating in new architecture for jails, juvenile detention centers, and, to a lesser extent, prisons. Architects specializing in these facilities are promoting better conditions for the incarcerated and the correctional staff through careful design considerations, bolstered by emerging science and strategic partnerships with correctional associations.

However, these advances come amid rising criticism of the American justice system as a whole. According to a Pew Charitable Trust report, one in 99 American adults will spend time behind bars in 2008, and with the taxpayer-footed cost to build and operate correctional facilities skyrocketing, some architects are boycotting the field of justice design altogether. At the heart of the debate is a provocative analysis of justice in this country and the role architects and designers should play.

BEING A GOOD NEIGHBOR

The Brooklyn House of Detention expansion is not, in fact, a result of rising inmate population. Rather, it is an effort to streamline the system for those awaiting trial and sentencing (as well as for their families and lawyers). Currently, most inmates are housed in a complex of nine separate jail facilities on Rikers Island, in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. Some 350,000 people visit Rikers on an annual basis. The DOC hopes that decentralizing the population into community jails in Brooklyn and the Bronx will expedite the system. “Every day, we have to bus 1,500 inmates to courts all around the city and bus most of them back,” explains Stephen Morello, a DOC spokesman. When you're dealing with rush-hour traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, that's no small matter.

It's important to bear in mind the basic distinction between jails and prisons. Jails are locally operated and funded, used to confine people before and after adjudication. Those arrested can cycle in and out, with many spending only 48 hours in the system. Inmates who were found guilty and sentenced to a jail are likely serving no more than a year. Prisons, on the other hand, are state- and federal-funded facilities for those who have been convicted and are likely serving longer sentences. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2006, state and federal prisons held 1,570,861 inmates, while local jails held 766,010 persons awaiting trial or serving a sentence.

For a jail to function effectively within a community, it must work in lock-step with the rest of the justice system—from law enforcement and social services to courthouses and law offices. Ken Ricci of Ricci Greene Associates has been active in justice design since graduating from the Pratt Institute in the 1960s and has long advocated for improved, humane facilities. Ricci believes that locating jails in city centers close to other agencies is most helpful for those who have been arrested. “Jails are legitimate buildings in an urban environment. They are part of the civic landscape,” Ricci says. When designing a jail, he adds, you have to consider the totality of the system. “You must always ask yourself how you can reduce the time of the stay for the inmate.”

Getting communities to accept a new jail can be a challenge, especially when it's coming to the center of town. Most prefer jails to be buffered from society or, better yet, consigned to an island like Rikers. This is where exterior design comes in. One major change in recent decades is that jails have gone from more traditional, round or linear models, with cells lining the perimeter or circling a guard tower, to a more pod-like orientation. In this configuration, housing units ring around a central dayroom, a setup that has obvious advantages for the inmates inside. By contrast, on the cell model, “If you do a cell window, you wind up with a 5-inch slit because that's the size you can't get a head through,” says Andy Cupples, a principal at DMJM H&N. “Once you do that, it's very prison-like.”

The pod strategy gives rise to improvements outside and in. For a new jail in downtown Denver, scheduled to open in 2010, Ricci Greene has created, with Hartman-Cox Architects and OZ Architecture, an interior from which inmate quarters look onto a recreation yard that's open to the sky. “As a pedestrian on the street, you can't see this, but as an inmate you can access the outside,” Ricci says.

While more prevalent in urban settings, the push to fit in is not reserved for cities alone. DMJM H&N was part of a design-build team for the Lexington-Fayette County Detention Center in horse country outside of Lexington, Ky. (Ricci Greene also consulted on the project.) Neighbors were concerned that the 1,280-bed, 425,000- square-foot facility would clash with the landscape of sprawling fields peppered with horse barns. After a series of public meetings to discuss the design, the architects recessed the facility into a hill at the center of the site. The administration building, which is more visible to the public, is designed to look like an equine facility.

“Modern jails make good neighbors,” Ricci says. “But that is not the end of the story. You also have to look at the environment on the inside.”