Justice in Design

Posted on July 13th, 2017 by Nicole Sakr

Posted under: Press, Urban Design



NADAAA’s collaborative report to develop guidelines and opportunities for forward-thinking jail design has been released to the public. This report was created with the Van Alen Institute and The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform to explore how design could make “A More Just New York City”. The findings in the report develop innovative design and programming guidelines for future decentralized jails—termed Justice Hubs. Justice Hubs are facilities that create healthy, normative environments and support rehabilitation for incarcerated or detained individuals, while simultaneously providing neighborhoods with new public amenities.

These facilities take into account the context of surrounding communities. The guidelines offer resources for all neighborhood residents, reducing the fear and stigma surrounding jails while providing shared amenities, such as community gardens, art studios, exercise facilities, medical clinics, and social services. Calling for on-site programs such as job training centers, community courts, a police department, and probation offices, the guidelines position Justice Hubs as public sites of civic unity with integrated ways for detainees to return to life in the city, restoring dignity to people who are incarcerated while making the criminal justice system more visible, accountable, and responsive.

The full report can be downloaded as a pdf HERE, below is a summary.


Rikers Island affects people from every borough, creating intertwined challenges for detainees, their families, correction staff, and city residents. The isolated location, harsh environments, and challenging protocols make for spaces that are dehumanizing, unhealthy, and unsafe for many that come into contact with it. Closing Rikers would relieve the knot of tension and harm that these jails create.


A series of workshops in three New York City boroughs were instrumental in establishing the design principles of our work. In addition to the workshops, the team also toured two existing jails, attended Independent Commission round-table discussions, and met with family members of people who were detained and with former correction officers. The workshops, site-visits, and round-tables affirmed the urgent need to close Rikers Island and develop a new generation of jails.



Consideration of supervisory, programmatic, operational, quality of life, and design elements in the interior configurations of spaces is essential for healthier residential life for inmates, detainees, and officers. These five elements are the foundation of our design principles for residential life, which can be used in both existing and new facilities: direct supervision, connection to embedded program spaces, manage sensory stimulation in physical environment, streamline the intake and release processes, and re-conceive medical and behavioral health service processes.


Organizational, personnel, and aesthetic changes in the processing of information, staff interactions, improvement of furnishings, lighting conditions, access to outdoors, and views would tangibly improve a person’s ability to visit someone who has been detained, as well as normalizing the meeting experience itself.



Justice Hubs are a new model for detention in New York City. Located in each of the boroughs near existing courts and municipal buildings, these new facilities offer an innovative opportunity for a justice system that is fair and responsive to different communities throughout New York City. Rikers Island is an isolated, violence-plagued, fiscal drain on the city. The Hubs’ locations and state-of-the-art design offers:

1. Reduced time and resources needed for individuals to move to and from courts.
2. Modern facilities that are safe on the inside and reflect the look and feel of the neighborhood on the outside.
3. Increased accountability and community connection.
4. Improved court efficiency that eases strain on inmates and staff.
5. More effective and efficient programming and services that address mental health and criminal justice issues that ultimately lower the jail population.
6. The creation of a civic resource, integrated into the neighborhood providing communities with much needed services and facilities.


Communities are defined by a diversity of people utilizing an array of places and programs in the City.  The location, programming and services provided at a Justice Hub will benefit  detainees, their families, jail staff and the broader community.



A Justice Hub benefits the detainee by providing a faster judicial process, better access to health services and programming, more frequent access to family visits and legal support, and more calming living spaces.


A Justice Hub enables family members of detainees and inmates the opportunity to see loved ones without traveling long distances, and creates a safe and friendly environment for visitation.


People engage city elements in specific ways and share coincidental connections. Realizing our connectedness can help shape a positive understanding of who we are and how we define New York City.


A single civic entry at street level shared by all who use the building establishes a common threshold for everyone to enter—whether worker, visitor, or the general public using other programs. This powerful and simple idea identifies a building for all users to take advantage of what the Justice Hub has to offer. For an institution to be perceived as part of the culture and integral to the identity of the community, the design language of the building itself must embody civic ideals. To do so, the institution and its surroundings must serve existing programs yet remain flexible for future needs, address their context, symbolize a larger ethos and civic identity, and connect with public aspirations.


As the city moves toward a future with a system of borough-based courts and jails, these new buildings must become an integral part of the city, borough, neighborhood, and civic experience for all New Yorkers. No longer should they stand isolated from the surrounding context.


More resources:

The Mayor’s resolution to close Rikers Island: Smaller Safer Fairer: A Road Map to Closing Rikers Island

The Independent Commission Report: A More Just New York City

Justice in Design Workshop Process


Justice in Design Team:

Our team was led by NADAAA principals Dan Gallagher, AIA and Nader Tehrani with a key multi-disciplinary group including Susan Gottesfeld of the Osborne Association; Karen Kubey, urbanist; with Susan Opotow and Jayne Mooney of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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