Skip to Main Content

These Walls

The Battle for Rikers Island and the Future of America's Jails



Buy from Other Retailers

About The Book

“A critical intervention in the high stakes debate about the social value of jails and what we could do instead to create safety and justice.” —Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing

In the tradition of Locking Up Our Own and The New Jim Crow, a rarely seen, thought-provoking journey into Rikers Island and the American justice system that “reframes the debate the country’s incarceration crisis, with a compelling focus on architecture as a path forward (Tony Messenger, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Profit and Punishment).

For nearly a century, the Rikers Island jail complex has stood on a 413-acre manmade island in the East River of New York. Today it is the largest correctional facility in the city, housing eight active jails and thousands of incarcerated individuals who have not yet been tried. It is also one of the most controversial and notorious jails in America.

Which is why, when mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2017 that Rikers would be closed within the next decade, replaced with four newly designed jails located within the city boroughs, the surface reaction seemed largely positive. Many were enthusiastic, including Eva Fedderly, a journalist focused on the intersections of social justice and design, who was covering the closure and its impact for Architectural Digest. But as Fedderly dug deeper and spoke to more people involved, she discovered that the consensus was hardly universal. Among architects tasked with redesigns that reconcile profits and progress, the members of law enforcement working to stop incarceration cycles in community hot spots, the reformers and abolitionists calling for change, and, most wrenchingly, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people whose lives will be most affected, some agreed that closing Rikers was a step in the right direction, but many were quick to point out that Rikers was being replaced, not removed. On one point, however, there was firm agreement: whatever the outcome, the world would be watching.

Part on-the-ground reporting, part deep social and architectural history, These Walls is an eye-opening, “insightful…bracing look at how the nation’s jails—and the nation itself—ought to be reformed” (Kirkus Reviews) and a challenge to our long-held beliefs about what constitutes power and justice.


Chapter One: Rikers Island ONE Rikers Island
Our 21-minute call was almost up, but by now we were used to it. Every time Moose buzzed, the line was tapped. At least the call was free.

A dystopian haze had settled over New York City. Stoplights flicked from red to green to yellow, but there was no hum of cars, no symphony of horns at rush hour. Birds flew overhead, yet few planes soared through the open sky. The restaurants and theaters of Times Square were dark, but giant screens and billboards glowed like a scene out of a sci-fi thriller. It was 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic had gripped the globe. Life, as we knew it, stood still.

Inside New York City’s jails, life was far more unsettling. As the pandemic crawled on, my phone number slipped from cinderblock cell to cell, traveling like wildfire through the city’s web of detention centers; daily dispatches were reported from the Manhattan Detention Complex, the Brooklyn Detention Complex, and the Vernon C. Bain Center, a looming barge floating off the coast of the South Bronx. Together, these jail facilities housed 2,500 beds. None was more dysfunctional, more problematic than Rikers Island, which at its peak in the 1990s warehoused over 21,000 people. Resting in the murky-green East River, this island houses not one but ten jails, eight of which are still active. Situated between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx, Rikers—like all the city’s jails—is governed by the New York City Department of Correction. Each day, this government agency transports about one tenth of Rikers’ population to courthouses residing in the boroughs. (The city annually spends $31 million on these trips alone.) Even though Rikers rests just 100 yards from LaGuardia Airport’s runways, this 413-acre island is completely isolated. Because of this, it’s also self-sustaining, with its own bus depot, fire station, chapel, K9 unit, bakery, multiple trailers, a garden surrounded by razor wire, and a 30,000-square-foot power plant.

When the pandemic hit, jail programs shut down, visitors were barred from entering, mail delivery slowed, and basic services, like the jails’ barber shops, shuttered, leaving people’s hair and nails long and jagged. Some told me soap was scarce; social distancing, nearly impossible. Concrete cells were filled with fecal matter and urine, and some had inoperable sinks. Gnats circled rotting food on worn floors. People said they weren’t given masks or hand sanitizer; Virex disinfectant was rarely distributed—one person said just every two weeks. Another reported that the George R. Vierno Center—one of Rikers’ men’s jails—was “the epicenter of the disease.” It was like sitting on death row without a sentence.

We were in the early stages of the pandemic, in May 2020, when Moose first called. Protests over the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were crescendoing across the nation. Civil unrest shook the country, as the pandemic raged on. Citizens demanded we defund the police. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio would soon declare a state of emergency and issue a citywide curfew for the “health and welfare” of New Yorkers.

“This is a call from”—a man stated his name—“an incarcerated individual at the New York City Department of Correction,” the automated announcement said.

A polite baritone voice came through the line and introduced himself. I was surprised by his cheerful disposition, despite the grim circumstances.

“Judges call me ‘Jack.’ Friends call me ‘Moose.’?”I

“How do you spell it?” I asked, grabbing a pen. “M-O-U-S-S-E?”

The voice let out a bellow of laughter, a Moose signature with which I became well acquainted. “Not like the dessert!”

I cracked a smile.

“Moose. M-O-O-S-E.” He guffawed again.

When the pandemic first hit, Moose had been locked up on Rikers, the latest in his long string of stints in New York City’s jail system. Owing to the pandemic, New York City—and other jurisdictions around the country—released people with “nonviolent” charges.II New York City’s total jail population dropped from 5,458 to 3,824, its lowest number since the 1940s. Among the released was Moose. He’d been roaming the Free World, strolling the streets of the Bronx—homebase when he’s not in the joint—where he rediscovered the rhythm of freedom.

“It felt so good to be out in the sunshine,” Moose recalled. “Every day I was out in the sun, with Purell on my trigger finger.”

Moose wasn’t long for the Free World. While on the move, he misplaced his parole officer’s phone number. He also got shot. “One bullet landed in my arm near my elbow,” he said. “But I got an image to uphold in my neighborhood, so I laughed and drank beer.” Less than three weeks later, the cops pinched him on 176th Street. He landed back in jail, the bullet still lodged in his arm.

“Sorry about your arm,” I said. “You get it bandaged?”

“They haven’t taken me to see anyone yet. I’m still waiting for them to wrap it.” He paused. “I’m hoping to get released soon. Maybe Monday.”

“Oh, wow, that soon.”

His tone shifted to serious. “I heard you’re writing a book about Rikers. How can I help?”

Rikers Island has many names: “Torture Island,” “The Gladiator School,” and the “House of Dead Men.” During hot spells, it’s “The Oven,” since many cells lack air-conditioning. This island is one of the largest and most expensive jail complexes in the United States. Each jail on Rikers is defined by its own architecture, warden, staff, and people locked inside. There is one trait that most incarcerated people here share: most are untried.

Like the rest of America’s jails, Rikers holds people who have not been convicted of a crime; they have not been sentenced. Though Americans are supposed to be presumed innocent until found guilty, jails are designed to hold those who have not yet seen their day in court. They wait, month after month, sometimes year after year, for their alleged constitutional right to a speedy trial. While prisons house those who’ve been convicted and sentenced with long-term, even lifetime stays (the longest sentence ever received was 10,000 years, according to Guinness World Records), jails remain, overwhelmingly, the institutions for those who can’t afford bail (a small percentage of the population is serving sentences under one year). The justice system forces them to serve as human collateral behind these walls.

Though this is a crucial difference between a prison and a jail, the distinction is often not understood by those outside the criminal justice system. Some of America’s most epic films, greatest writers, most respectable newspapers, and most prudent editors use the terms jail and prison interchangeably. Even today, when conversations about justice reform are at one of their most potent points, many members of the media and the public don’t recognize the difference between a jail and a prison. To be clear, jails and prisons are not fungible. Many get this wrong from the start, revealing a frightening lack in awareness of how America’s justice system actually works.

Some argue the system is designed to be opaque. The public and the media need not know what happens on the inside. Prisons and jails can sidestep First Amendment rights, leaving those who enter at the discretion of those at the helm of these institutions. Incarcerated people are given little contact with the outside world, some just in the form of lawyer visits and 21-minute phone calls. For visitors allowed inside, it can be like traveling through a byzantine maze, especially in places like Rikers.

Physically connecting Rikers to the Free World is just one lone bridge, dubbed the “Bridge of Pain” by rapper Flavor Flav, who did time here. To reach this island dedicated to mass incarceration, visitors wait on the Queens side at the foot of the bridge, at a public bus stop. After picking up anyone there, the Q100 rumbles across the two-lane bridge. On Rikers, the bus empties its passengers, typically wives, girlfriends, children, extended family members, and friends. Correction officers in street clothes and program and nonprofit volunteers also ride. Although it’s just a four-minute drive, Rikers feels like a different world.

Visitors wait in a seemingly endless line to pass through the first security checkpoint. After more waits and delays, they board a second bus—a white Department of Correction (DOC) vehicle with metal-grate-covered windows—which moves them to the specific jail they’re visiting. Here, they undergo another round of security checks. Diapers, food, money, purses, and reading materials must be checked in lockers at a visitor waiting area. These visits are limited to certain hours, three times a week, and only on weekdays. The visitors then must wait for the Q100’s return ride to Queens to go home to the Free World. Though visits are capped at one hour, a trip to Rikers can take all day. Like so many other jails and prisons, this world of detention is tucked away and out of reach. Obviously, Rikers was not designed to keep families intact.

For those in jail, three out of four are locked up because they don’t have the cash to buy their freedom. Those who’ve got the scratch—like Harvey Weinstein, who posted a $1 million bail on his rape charges—pay the price and hang out in the Free World until their court date. If they have some cash, they can visit a bail-bond shop, which are posted up opportunistically around the nation’s courthouses and jails. Bail bondsmen lend cash bail for sky-high, nonrefundable premiums. The average bail runs around $10,000, equal to about eight months’ pay for the typical detainee. For most, the cost of freedom is prohibitive. Those with little means must serve as collateral themselves. They’re locked in jail, where they languish, waiting for their scheduled time in a legal system that’s a tangle of arcane hurdles and long delays. When their day in court does arrive—whether they’re found guilty or not guilty—they’ve been stripped from their families, removed from their jobs or schools, and severed from their responsibilities. A survey found that, on one day in New York City in 2022, untried people were being held in jail for an average of 286 days while awaiting their court dates. (Those who received mental health services while in jail were likely to be held over for 50 percent longer time.) That’s enough time for a person’s life to fall apart.

This forced captivity mainly happens to people of color and those with little means. It is the default of America’s criminal justice system. In New York City’s jails, the vast number of incarcerated people are Black or Hispanic—to be specific, nine out of every ten. Nationally, Black people are incarcerated at a rate nearly six times that of white people; Hispanic people are three times as likely to be incarcerated as white people. Aside from the racial disparities in the justice system, incarceration is also extremely costly for taxpayers. In 2021, the city comptroller reported that to lock up one person for a year in a New York City jail, it costs over half a million dollars. To be exact: $556,539.

This extremely costly system is the nature of American justice. Jails account for far more people than America’s prisons. Jails see over 10 million entries per year. The United States has about 3,116 local jails. That’s a lot of people doing time, many of whom don’t have convictions. Of all the people held in New York City jails, relatively few are sent to prison. Perhaps that’s why there are significantly fewer prisons than jails. There are 1,566 state prisons—run by state governments—which incarcerate about 1 million people. Those who break federal laws are sent to one of the nation’s 98 federal prisons. In 2022, federal prisons held 208,000 people.

A common belief is that private prisons are one of our justice system’s biggest current problems. Though they certainly are problematic, private prisons locked up far fewer people than the nation’s jails. Private prisons, run by for-profit corporations, accounted for only 8 percent of the nation’s total incarcerated population in 2020. However, as of 2021, the Department of Justice is no longer allowed to contract out to privately operated prisons (though this rule does not apply to the many private facilities used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which falls under the management of the Department of Homeland Security). As of the year 2023, there are 1,323 juvenile facilities, 181 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian country jails (there are also prisons in the U.S. territories, military prisons, state psychiatric hospitals, and civil commitment centers), according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

With so many people locked up in these institutions, America’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in the world. We have more prisons and jails than we have colleges and universities. Despite the vast concentration of these facilities, many Americans remain untouched by the justice system. However—whether they know it or not—everybody has a jail nearby. With 3,116 local jails, that’s roughly one per county. Jails are run by town sheriffs, wardens, or correction departments, each with its own set of rules, budgets, and philosophies. It’s worth noting that even though incarceration is an integral part of our local, regional, and national infrastructure, there is no overarching body to monitor those jails, nor is there a nationwide database of local jail information. Only a periodic Census of Jails, prepared by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, can serve as a semi-consistent record. “I hate having to give this answer, but it’s the truth: we don’t know the answer, because there’s no required reporting mechanism,” a representative from the American Jail Association, a nonprofit organization for jail professionals, responded when I inquired about jail policies and national statistics. “Any numbers we have are just because people have chosen to give [them] to us.”

Information we do have is on America’s recidivism rate, meaning how frequently someone who’s been released from detention is rearrested or locked up again. Our recidivism rate is one of the highest in the world: seven out of ten peopleIII were rearrested within five years of release. Of all the arrests made in America, most (80 percent) are for low-level, nonviolent offenses. America’s soaring incarceration and recidivism rates reveal that something isn’t working.

To help make the nation safer, our communities stronger, and the incarcerated population closer to anything near international norms, we first must have a fundamental understanding of America’s criminal justice system, its history, and how we got here. In the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “History haunts even generations who refuse to learn history. Rhythms, patterns, continuities, drift out of time long forgotten to mold the present and to color the shape of things to come.… The dialectic between past and future will continue to form our lives.… The past helps explain where we are today and how we got there.” Knowing our history can help prevent us from repeating the failures of our past, while informing our contemporary actions.

As one of America’s largest, most dangerous jail complexes, Rikers Island embodies much of what’s wrong with the current system. In 2022, its rampant violence and disorder brought Rikers to the brink of federal takeover. That year, 19 people on Rikers died while in custody. The majority of people locked up there are overwhelmingly Black and Brown, most of whom have not been convicted, unable to buy their way out. Through its architecture, its isolation, and its policies, Rikers has long personified the horrors of incarceration, but it hasn’t always been this way.

In 1664, when New Amsterdam became New York City, Rikers Island was owned by Dutch settler Abraham Rycken, who lived nearby in a home that survives today as the city’s oldest inhabited house. At this time, Rikers was a small, marshy island, which was passed down, generation to generation, until 1884. That was the year the city paid $180,000 for the 87 ½ acres from Magistrate Richard Riker, a judge whose racist legacy includes sending free Black people back to the American South.

Around this same time, many of the city’s incarcerated were held on another island, Blackwell’s Island (today, Roosevelt Island), which housed a penitentiary, a hospital for “incurables,” workhouses, and the reportedly filthy, abusive New York City Lunatic Asylum. The city was set on converting Rikers into a new place to hold some of the incarcerated population. First, Rikers would need to be expanded in size. Leveraging the labor of its imprisoned, the city expanded the island to 413 acres, using garbage and horse manure.

In 1933, the first jail opened on Rikers. Designed by Sloan & Robertson Architects, this Art Deco–style institution slept 1,200 people. The city’s original goal was to transfer the Blackwell’s population, slowly and partially, to Rikers. However, owing to a Blackwell’s corruption scandal, that penitentiary was closed in 1935, causing all of the Blackwell’s population to be hastily moved onto Rikers, the new hub for the city’s castaways. The rancid smells emanating from the island were so pungent that when the 1939 World’s Fair was to kick off in nearby Flushing, Queens, New Yorkers worried the odor would deter fair attendees. In an attempt to fight the fumes, the city planted a nursery on the island, but the baby trees’ roots turned black and smelled acrid. When rats flooded the island to feast on the waste, the city unleashed dogs to try and wipe out the infestation. Today, rats still overrun the island.

The city was undeterred. New jails were opened across the island from the 1970s through the 1990s. All the jails were for men, except one—the Correctional Institution for Women, which opened in 1971. This women’s jail was converted to a men’s jail when the new women’s jail opened in 1988, the Rose M. Singer Center. Painted a putrid shade of mauve pink, this jail came equipped with a 25-bed nursery for the babies of pregnant women (if the jail allows the mother to maintain custody, the baby can live here for up to a year).

Since the 1930s, multitudes of people have been locked in the jails of Rikers Island, including Tupac Shakur, Sid Vicious, Lil Wayne, Anna Sorokin, DMX, and Foxy Brown. New people enter, but the history remains. When the heat swells and the tide falls, the landfill’s stench is a plaguing reminder that we haven’t come far from the past.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Rikers came under fire when tough-on-crime policies locked away scores of people without convictions, leading to overpopulation, riots, and mistreatment. Twice, the city attempted to close Rikers, unsuccessfully: once in the late 1970s and again in the mid-2000s. As of 2023, Rikers is very much alive in the East River. Over the years, incarcerated people and correction officers have filed multiple lawsuits against the city. In 2015, the city settled a federal lawsuit concerning conditions at Rikers and acquiesced to numerous reforms. Rikers received a federal monitor, installed thousands of surveillance cameras, and restricted its staff from using force.

Though these reforms aimed to protect incarcerated people from violence, they did little to shield them from trauma. One 23-year-old painter told me about waiting for trial on Rikers in the fall of 2020, after an arrest for disorderly conduct. He couldn’t afford bail and so was sent to Rikers, where he spent four months awaiting trial. While he was inside, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was quarantined with other sick men. (As of March 2023, in New York City jails, 15,158 staff and 11,991 incarcerated people got COVID-19; of them, 18 staff and 48 incarcerated people died.) The painter felt like he was losing his mind. He would try to immerse himself in a book, but setting it down would reignite the feeling of the walls closing in. Rikers, he and others believe, is haunted. When his court date arrived, the painter appeared before a judge and, like many others, he entered a guilty plea. Nearly all criminal cases (98 percent of federal criminal cases) are resolved with a plea bargain, a loophole used in criminal courts to speed up cases, whereby a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to obtain a lesser sentence. Ironically, almost no criminal defendants actually see their days in court. The painter was released. When we spoke two years later, he was still on parole. Recalling his time on Rikers, he burst into tears: “No one”—he wiped his cheeks— “should have to go through that.”

There are countless stories like his, but there was one in particular that rose to national attention in 2015, again igniting calls for the closure of Rikers and prompting New York City’s ban on solitary confinement of youths. In that year, after being held on Rikers for three years without a conviction, Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old Black man from the Bronx, killed himself.

As a high school sophomore, Browder was accused of stealing a backpack. The 16-year-old maintained his innocence. He’d had previous run-ins with the police: eight months before, he had taken a delivery truck for a joyride and crashed into another car, a crime for which he pled guilty and was put on probation, deemed a “youthful offender,” meaning he wouldn’t have a criminal record as a minor. For the backpack incident, the judge charged him with grand larceny, robbery, and assault, and his bail was set at $3,000. Browder’s family eventually came up with the money through a bail bond, but Browder was denied release because he was on probation. Instead, the teenager was locked up on Rikers, due to a contemporaneous state law that offenders 16 years of age and older should be tried as adults. (New York was only one of two states to adhere to the practice, until it was ended with 2017’s Raise the Age law.)

While at Rikers, Browder suffered multiple beatings from correction officers and other incarcerated people, and his trial was delayed over and over again. Prosecutors tried to convince him to take a plea deal for a two- to three-year sentence, but Browder understood that taking a plea deal would mean he’d forsake his right to a fair trial, and it would put a felony on his rap sheet. Browder spent more than 700 days in solitary confinement. He attempted suicide several times. Eventually, Browder’s case was dismissed. He’d missed school for three years. After struggling with his mental health, two years after his release he hung himself at his mother’s home.

The tragedy went public. Rikers surveillance footage of Browder’s abuse was released. Nationwide, people saw inside Rikers. This young man’s story was emblematic of what was wrong with America’s criminal justice system: an untried child was removed from school to live at Rikers, waiting for his court date, for years. Rikers, once again, took the spotlight. People demanded change.

Among those advocating for change was New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. In 2016, the speaker spotlighted Browder’s tragedy in her State of the City address. Browder’s mother, Venida, sat in the front row of the auditorium of a Bronx high school. Speaker Mark-Viverito told the packed audience that this loss of life embodied the failings of the criminal justice system, not just of New York City but also nationwide.

“Kalief entered as a child, but left as a broken man,” Mark-Viverito said to the crowd. Browder’s mom wiped tears from her eyes. “It is time to take our criminal justice system outside of the shadows and finally address the institutional racism which has plagued it for far too long.” The auditorium erupted with applause. “It is time to reimagine our entire criminal justice system.… Rikers Island has come to represent our worst tendencies and our biggest failures.… For too long, Rikers has not stood for more justice, but for revenge. We must explore how we can get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.”

Then came Mark-Viverito’s headlining announcement.

She would launch an independent investigation of Rikers. Led by former chief judge of the State of New York Jonathan Lippman, the commission would have 27 members, including judges, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, and a real estate developer. The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform—nicknamed the “Lippman Commission”—would take the next year to develop a “community-based justice model that will complement existing reform efforts,” Mark-Viverito declared. The launch of the Lippman Commission seemed well timed and attuned to the public’s shifting perspectives of “justice.”

Closing Rikers Island was political. Then New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his office was on board with the Lippman Commission’s efforts. However, Bill de Blasio, the city’s unpopular mayor, didn’t seem to be. In early 2016, the mayor had told the press, “It would cost many billions of dollars, and I have to look out for what’s feasible and I have to look out for the taxpayer.” While the statement wasn’t necessarily wrong, the mayor was growing out of step with many New Yorkers—and others around the country, who were rallying for change in the justice system. Across America, more philanthropic dollars were flowing into justice reform than ever before. Cities and towns were exploring creative answers to lower their jail populations, reform their sentencing policies, and improve the conduct of their police forces. The mood was ripe for change.

As the Lippman Commission began their interviews, studies, and research, Mayor de Blasio was facing pressure from numerous fronts. When the commission was gearing up to release its much-anticipated report, in an interesting turn of events, the mayor beat them to the punch. On Friday, March 31, 2017, de Blasio’s team assembled a last-minute press conference at City Hall. The six-foot-five mayor stood in the grand marble rotunda, flanked by none other than Mark-Viverito and the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Elizabeth Glazer. The mayor’s announcement that day would set the tone for criminal justice reform around the nation.

“New York City,” de Blasio proclaimed to journalists, TV anchors, and cameras, “will close the Rikers Island jail facility.” Cameras started clicking and flashing. “Rikers Island is an example and expression of a major national problem. The mass incarceration crisis did not begin in New York City, but it will end here. We are going to end the era of mass incarceration by making this important change.”

While de Blasio didn’t delve into details about how Rikers would close—aside from saying that it would slash its jail population through various reform measures—he did promise the closure of Rikers within ten years. Some were skeptical from the start, saying it was a publicity stunt from a feckless mayor attempting to score good PR, while others questioned how the mayor could possibly see the reform effort through, as he wouldn’t be in office in ten years’ time. How could he guarantee the next administration would accomplish this major initiative? Easy for him to announce the initiative, when it would be his successor’s problem to solve. Still, others hoped this would be the greatest criminal justice overhaul the city had ever seen. Longstanding ethical questions could be addressed about jail conditions. People would no longer suffer on Rikers. New York City could be a pioneer in ending the nation’s love affair with mass incarceration. This could be the beginning.

That same weekend, another press conference was held. The Lippman Commission released its first report, “A More Just New York City.” After a year of research and listening to stakeholders and members of the community, the authors of the report proclaimed the Rikers closure as a “moral imperative.” The commission suggested multiple reforms at various phases of the criminal justice process, such as bail reform, working with groups outside the jail system, and better training for correction officers. If the city could enact various reforms, the daily jail population at Rikers could drop to less than 5,000 over the next decade. (In 2017, the average daily population in the city’s jails was 9,400 people.) Slowly, and one by one, the city could close each jail on Rikers, rendering the island empty within ten years. The newly available island could then be transformed into an extension of nearby LaGuardia Airport, or it could house next-generation or sustainable infrastructure. The city could also relocate some of its existing facilities in lower-income communities to Rikers Island, thereby freeing up space for parks, job training, and employment opportunities. A museum could be built on Rikers, dedicated to all who’ve suffered there.

The commission had another idea in store, one that would prove incendiary. Their idea positioned architecture at the forefront of justice reform. Rikers needs to close, yes, but new jails should be built in the boroughs. Brand-new, sleek detention centers designed by world-class architecture firms should replace the boroughs’ older jails, such as the Tombs in Manhattan and The Boat in the East River. People inside could live in more “normalized” settings and be closer to the courthouses. These jails would be “humane,” with natural sunlight, softer lighting, better acoustics, regular fixtures and furnishings, and temperature control that could reduce stress and encourage good behavior. The new façades could be welcoming and “inspire confidence in what happens inside,” the Lippman Commission’s report said. “Design has a direct impact on behavior,” it proclaimed. “We know that jail design can actually help achieve better outcomes.” These new jails would house fewer beds to keep the jail populations relatively small and to avoid overcrowding. Every jail could have a “town center” that offers social services. The environment, instead of punishing the incarcerated, could help them by supporting rehabilitation and thus reduce crime. New York City could become “a beacon of safety, humanity, and justice for cities across the country and around the world,” the Lippman Report declared. “Let New York City lead the way, as it has done so often in the past.” Fixing Rikers was impossible; these new jails could be the way of the future. They called it the Borough-Based Jails (BBJ) program.

“[Rikers] is the epitome of the mass incarceration model,” Judge Jonathan Lippman told me. I thought about Moose and other people without sentences I talked to, sweating inside Rikers’ old, fetid jails. “It puts a lot of people out of mind and out of sight and bad things happen. The people who work there are just as much in danger. You can’t fix it or make it better. It’s too entrenched in the mass incarceration mantra. You need a whole new approach, which is all about smaller, safer, and more humane jails.” The new jails would provide a habitable space for incarcerated people, correction officers, and visitors. “Create the envelope to make the culture better. I think those go hand in hand.… You’re not going to change Rikers in a fundamental way. Believe me, I’ve seen it all. Every time I go there, the city brings out a bunch of programs. The answer is to get rid of the godforsaken place. Get rid of that godforsaken place!”

In the early days of summer 2017, Mayor de Blasio formalized the Borough-Based Jails program. Some felt this could be de Blasio’s mayoral legacy, a historic criminal justice overhaul that could inspire the nation. This wasn’t the first time the city was attempting to be a national bellwether. New York City has paved the way for social change and progress; for instance, the first civil rights laws since Reconstruction were passed here, including those for fair housing, education, and employment, which inspired laws in dozens of others states. As E. B. White wrote in his book about New York City, Here Is New York, “It is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village, the visible symbol of aspiration and faith.” While other cities around the nation were attempting their own sweeping criminal justice reform efforts, New York was in a unique situation—with fecund ground to experiment with justice reform. During the last 20 years, as many American cities experienced massive surges in their incarcerated populations, New York City saw the opposite: in just one generation, Gotham had transformed from an emblem of extreme urban disorder, earning its 1970s nickname “Fear City,” into America’s safest big city. Mayor de Blasio and the Lippman Commission were aiming for New York City to lead the way. The Borough-Based Jails program would have strong management, safe conditions, and a total of 3,544 jail beds and 380 secure hospital beds. Under “Smaller, Safer, Fairer: A Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island,” Rikers Island would close entirely by 2026 (later pushed to August 31, 2027, ostensibly due to the pandemic and budget reasons, according to Gothamist).

To ensure successful execution, the city launched a Justice Implementation Task Force, chaired by Elizabeth Glazer and Zachary Carter, corporation counsel of the City of New York, to help shape the strategy for the new “smaller, safer and fairer” jail system. The new jails would be built in four of the city’s five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. (Staten Island would not be included, as the city determined it would not be cost-effective to build a jail there.)

This massive reform effort came at a hefty cost: $8.3 billion. The Lippman Commission and the City University of New York (CUNY)’s Institute for State and Local Governance said that it would ultimately save the city $2 billion a year in operating costs and would be paid for with 30-year bonds. Despite the high price tag, two years later the City Council voted in favor of the BBJ program. Rikers Island was mandated to close by 2027. The city was required by law to close each jail on Rikers and flip each jail over to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Legally, New York City would be prohibited from incarcerating people on Rikers Island after 2027. The overhaul was officially set in motion.

That’s when I started covering the initiative for Architectural Digest. I wanted to explore whether this $8.3 billion was best spent on new jails, and whether architecture really could help solve America’s mass-incarceration problem. Inherently, there is controversy surrounding reform, and soon I found that the Borough-Based Jails program was no different. Compelled to go beyond the scope of my assignments, I wanted perspectives from those on the ground—mainly, those who were incarcerated. Accustomed to working with attorneys from my staff days at Courthouse News (and growing up in my dad’s law firm, where he practiced family law and criminal defense), I tracked down a group of young lawyers teaching debate to people on Rikers. Owing to the pandemic, Rikers Debate Project volunteers weren’t allowed inside, and had thus pivoted to letter correspondence. The lawyer volunteers relayed my request to their students inside. That’s when my phone started ringing daily—sometimes multiple times per day—with reports from behind the wall.

Moose caught word about a month in that there was a journalist looking to talk. He was back in the mix, except now he wasn’t on Rikers. He was booked on a parole violation downtown at the Manhattan Detention Complex, colloquially called “the Tombs” because the original jail here emulated the ancient mausoleums of Egypt. The Tombs was one of the jails slated for demolition, to make way for a state-of-the-art, high-rise jail.

When Moose reached out to me, he was ready to talk. As a frequent flier, he knew the system well and wanted to share his thoughts on the inside. When I broached the subject of New York City’s plan to close Rikers Island and build new jails in the boroughs, his reaction shook me.

“Fuck, no! You can’t get rid of the jails!” Moose hollered.

Before I could ask why not, the automated voice interrupted to tell us our time was up.

And the line clicked off.
  1. I. His full name will not be used, to protect his privacy.
  2. II. Over the course of three weeks.
  3. III. Based on people released from state prisons; jails don’t have overall reporting mechanisms.

About The Author

Eva Fedderly’s investigative reporting has been published in Architectural Digest, New York magazine, The Christian Science MonitorEsquire, and Courthouse News, where she reported hundreds of news-breaking stories on the American legal system. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard University, and lives in New York City and New Orleans. These Walls is her first book. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster (October 24, 2023)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982193911

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

“[An] absorbing debut… fascinating … our current system – expensive, dysfunctional, and biased as it is – has little to lose by considering innovative ways of ensuring public safety and justice for all.”

Christian Science Monitor

“Eva Fedderly’s book These Walls adds one more voice to the growing understanding that it is a failure. The straightforward prose and personal stories here make the argument for reconsidering and ultimately replacing this approach to societal problems that result in crime one that is accessible to anyone with interest in the matter.”


“Journalist Fedderly centers this incisive debut exploration of mass incarceration. . . an accessible and thought-provoking study.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Insightful… Fedderly vividly catalogs some of the worst problems at Rikers: overcrowding, unsanitary environments, routine violence, rampant and unaddressed mental health problems, and extraordinarily long wait times before court dates…. [and] concludes convincingly that versions of restorative justice, the expansion of community policing, and broader efforts to reduce poverty and promote social equity are essential to making the penal system more just and humane. A bracing look at how the nation’s jails—and the nation itself—ought to be reformed.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Can America design its way out of a broken criminal justice system that feeds a daily crisis in city jails? Yes, says author Eva Fedderly, but only if we stop seeing 'abolition' as a four-letter word. These Walls reframes the debate around the country's incarceration crisis, with a compelling focus on architecture as a path forward.”

Tony Messenger, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Profit and Punishment

“An important book. . . This is a discussion we need to have and These Walls is a great introduction to the key issues. Readers will be better educated for the experience, whichever side they come down on.”

Richard E. Wener, author of The Environmental Psychology of Prison and Jails

"Filled with key perspectives from those on the front lines of the ‘war on crime,’ Eva Fedderly’s These Walls is a critical intervention in the high stakes debate about the social value of jails and what we could do instead to create safety and justice."

Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing

“Eva Fedderly’s deep commitment to confronting the complexities of criminal justice reform is evident on every page of this prismatic survey. Especially engaging is her visit to a cellblock in the nation’s first bona fide penitentiary, outside Philadelphia, as well as her look at attempts to design more humane prisons. The endemic problems of our penal system, Fedderly concludes, will not be resolved until we create a more socioeconomically equitable America.”

David Friend, author of Watching the World Change and editor of creative development at Vanity Fair

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images