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

Written by:
Eva Fedderly
Narrated by:
Eunice Wong

Unabridged Audiobook

Release Date
October 2023
5 hours 3 minutes
“These Walls 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

“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

For nearly a century, the Rikers Island jail complex has stood on a 413-acre man-made 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. Not only would Rikers, a long-standing symbol of the ills of mass incarceration, be decommissioned, but the buildings erected in its place would be the product of more enlightened views and outlooks. 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. In a world of the rhetoric of talking heads and empty political promises, here, finally, was action. Breaking down the structures that enable an unjust system would surely mean its eventual eradication—change. Wasn’t that a sign of progress?

As Fedderly dug deeper and spoke to more people involved, however, she discovered that the consensus was hardly universal. Among architects at megafirms 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 individuals 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. There was frustration that the presence of new jails would disrupt neighborhoods, and that the city’s resources should be invested in effective crime prevention and rehabilitation in communities to stop the incarceration cycle. 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 look into how systems of inequity are constructed and a challenge to our long-held beliefs about what constitutes power and justice.
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