“How can we design something to transition people from a system that doesn’t want to let them go?”: Social Design and its Political Contexts

In fall 2010, I taught a course called Urban Services in which my students worked with students in the education program of a large non-profit organization in New York City that offers a range of services for people diverted and returning from prisons and jails. Just before the semester began, I bought an aluminum storage clipboard to attempt to alleviate a problem I’d had the semester before—not having the things I needed for class in one place. On our first meeting with the students and teachers of the partner organization, I took out the clipboard and one of the students we had come to meet pointed at it and said, “You’ve got one of those things like what the cops use.” I had arrived on the first day carrying what was for me an organizational tool, but for the student who saw it in my hand, was a tool used by the police to hold ticket books. This quickly, if not irretrievably, aligned me (and perhaps my students) with forces of arrest and imprisonment before we had even begun.

In the United States, a country that incarcerates more people per capita than any other,[1] New York State imprisons the fifth highest number of its residents. Just under 88,000 people are in state prisons and New York City incarcerates close to 30,000 people in local jails. In New York, African Americans are locked up at a rate 9.4 times higher, and Latinos 4.5 times higher, than whites.[2] Ruth Wilson Gilmore has argued that the massive expansion of the prison system in California (mirrored inNew York) since the late 1970s grows out of that era’s crisis of capital and the surplus of both land and people brought on by everything from economic recession to major shifts in the landscape of labor and industry.[3] She explains that these rates of incarceration are linked to systemic conditions that were, she argues, less related to the fact of “crime”—itself a moving target defined by laws that are often changing—and more to structures of race, class, and capital in the post-Civil Rights Era, post-industrial United States.[4] The impact of prison and jail, as well as related institutions, such as policing, courts, and even public schools, is deeply felt by large numbers of New York City residents, especially people of color, working class people, and people living in poverty.[5] These systems are some of the primary contexts shaping the partner organization itself and the lives of people working and receiving services there. For students in the alternative to incarceration program, failure to comply with its rules and requirements, including coming to class consistently, can result in having to serve suspended prison sentences.


From, “How can we design something to transition people from a system that doesn’t want to let them go?”: Social Design and its Political Contexts, Design Philosophy Papers, “Beyond ‘Progressive Design’ 1,” December 2011.

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[Notes for this excerpt]
[1] John Schmitt, Kris Warner and Sarika Gupta, ‘The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration’ Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, D.C., June 2010, 1.

[2] ‘The Sentencing Project Interactive Map’ The Sentencing Project, accessed May 10, 2010. http://www.sentencingproject.org/map/map.cfm#map.

[3] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, Berkeley:University of California Press, 2007.

[4] There is not space in this article to delve deeply into Gilmore’s argument here, although it is highly relevant to why the political contexts that produce or surround what get called ‘social’ problems can and should be fundamental to design in these areas.

[5]  See, for example, Ray Rivera, Al Baker and Janet Roberts, ‘A Few Blocks, 4 Years, 52,000 Police Stops’ New York Times, July 11, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/12/nyregion/12frisk.html and ‘Stop, Question, and Frisk in New York Neighborhoods’ an interactive map of stop and frisk police stops in New York City in 2009, July 11, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/07/11/nyregion/20100711-stop-and-frisk.html?ref=newyorkcitypolicedepartment.