Justice in Design

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In response to the decades of social injustice in the incarceration of thousands of innocent people on Rikers Island, The Van Alen Institute launched a research group to study ways in which the judicial process and protocols may be rethought by engaging a multi-disciplinary team to participate in a series of workshops, interviews, and discussion groups. By engaging the community, former inmates, family members, correctional officers and many other impacted by the existing judicial process, the Van Alen institute also assembled a team of planners, social and environmental psychologists, architects, and judicial reform advocates to document the experiences, opinions, and debates amongst the various participants, and to better understand what ramifications this has had on the community, the city of New York,  and from a larger perspective, society at large.

In part, the aim of the study was to evaluate the injustices of a centralized judicial system that locates all of its protocols in one place –Rikers Island, and what it would mean to decentralize the judicial process to be inclusive of the very communities that are impacted by the corollary injustices. As such, the process also included a programming process that included health and mental well-being experts, educational platforms, local community advocates, as well as business leaders whose participation might yield a more inclusive approach to the evaluation of judicial cases. By decentralizing and locating “justice hubs” around the city, the aim of the study was to evaluate how an inter-disciplinary team and a community process that is participatory may yield a judicial process that is not merely centered on detainment, but rather on the amelioration of circumstances for the very people impacted by injustices—restorative collaboration rather than incarceration.

Through public workshops and research, we heard that the system is in desperate need of significant change: many of the people brought onto Rikers Island are brought on alleged minor infractions, and because of a faulty and opaque process , cases are often unattended to for weeks (even months), creating a dangerous situation for everyone in the correctional facility, especially those who are innocent victims. From bureaucratic inattention to violence, many individuals are helplessly drawn into a cycle of misfortunes while under the ‘care’ of corrections officers, and allowed to devolve—most often not even being guilty of any infraction. The findings also point to the lasting effects of these experiences as inmates are brought back into communities later, without recourse to education, jobs, and other forms of assistance. Those who do have the luck to exit the system are also plagued with a ‘record’, and there are often no ways to overcome the unjust stigmas associated with such experiences.

The diagrams of this study are, then, a record of community discussions: an imprint of dialogues amongst the participants of the workshops to imagine the city of New York, its five Boroughs, and its varied neighborhoods, and to rethink them from the perspective of programming, social engagement, and community participation on the lives of not only the alleged offenders, but their families, schools, business and circles, all of whom are impacted by this cycle of injustice. Further, the research demonstrates that the complexity of the judicial process defies design solutions as such, and instead requires a holistic restorative process of policy, community participation, and educational strategies—all of which do, indeed, have formal, spatial and organizational repercussions.

NADAAA team: Nader Tehrani, Daniel Gallagher, Nicole Sakr, Alex Diaz

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