Abolitionists Push Back Against New York City’s Proposed Plan For a ‘Feminist Jail’

Appropriating feminist rhetoric in support of jail expansion ignores the underlying violence of incarceration.

A March 2022 protest in NYC against a proposed “mega-jail” in Manhattan's Chinatown. (Steve Sanchez Photos/Shutterstock)

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This story was originally published by Prism.

Last Tuesday, June 28, an interagency task force dedicated to designing and implementing plans to help ensure the safety of those detained in New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex was on the hot seat at a hearing held by the New York City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice. Chief Counsel Brendan McGuire, who leads the task force, answered questions from council members and local advocates about upcoming plans to address mental health issues plaguing those incarcerated at Rikers, staffing shortages, and overall conditions at the jail complex. At the hearing, nine advocates, including former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and senior fellows at the Columbia University Justice Lab, submitted written testimony in support of a new women’s jail that would be folded into the city’s current plans to build four new borough-based jails upon Rikers’ closure in 2027. While the borough-based jail plan sits outside the scope of the task force’s responsibilities, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina responded favorably during the hearing, expressing interest in the possibility of creating a separate women’s jail.

As 2027 approaches, the discussion around what will happen to women incarcerated at the Rose M. Singer Center, or Rosie’s, has become emblematic of how feminists have wrestled with the realities of navigating the carceral system. Amidst evolving plans for where the city will build replacement jails and whether or not they should include separate women’s facilities, a larger argument has taken shape about whether the needs of incarcerated women can be met through “gender-responsive” jails.

The city’s current plan is to develop four smaller jails located in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. The plan calls for those incarcerated at Rosie’s, the only facility on Rikers Island that detains women, to be transferred to the proposed facility in Kew Gardens, Queens. While men and women will be detained separately in the Queens jail, they will share some programming and medical spaces as well as a singular corridor to the courthouse.

However, #BEYONDRosies, a campaign spearheaded by the Women’s Community Justice Association, hopes to modify the city’s plan by establishing a separate women’s facility at the site of what was formerly a minimum-security men’s prison on West 110th Street in Harlem. #BEYONDRosies seeks to repurpose the building into a Women’s Center for Justice, inspired by past models of “gender-responsive” or “gender-sensitive” jails and prisons.

Campaigners contend that should the existing proposal for the Queen’s facility come to fruition, some women could end up sharing the same facility as their abusers, a not insignificant source of danger and retraumatization given that 77% of women detained in Rikers are also survivors of domestic violence. Supporters of the Women’s Center for Justice argue that a separate facility can help ensure both the safety of women and gender-expansive people (including trans, intersex, and gender-nonconforming people) while also placing them in a more central location. Detaining women in Queens would mean more extensive travel for their loved ones given that the majority of those incarcerated at Rosie’s hail from Harlem, East Harlem, East New York, and parts of the Bronx. The focus on maintaining family ties is a particularly salient point of the #BEYONDRosies campaign as 80% of women detained in U.S. jails were primary caregivers prior to their incarceration.

Outside of the perceived benefits of the location, recent press has attempted to posit the proposed Women’s Center for Justice as a “feminist jail.” The new women’s facility has been billed as less punitive and more therapeutic in hiring more female staff, replacing correctional guards with social workers and connecting with local nonprofits to provide supportive services. Yet, the proposal has raised sustained opposition from those who view incarceration as antithetical to feminism and who carry concerns about the potential for “gender-responsive” correctional projects to expand the carceral state under the guise of reform and “improvement.”

While women’s incarceration in New York City may be newly gaining attention by the public, the Women’s Center for Justice is inextricably a part of the story of the borough-based jail plan that has gripped the energy and attention of organizers, advocates, families, and local electeds for the past five years. For abolitionist groups, the emergence of the borough-based jail plan has been a terrifying contortion of what were initially far more radical demands to close Rikers without the construction of new jails in its place. Mon Moha, a New York-based organizer, describes the plan as an attempt by the city to “rebrand incarceration” and “appeal to carceral humanism.”

The joint testimony written to the New York City Council by advocates for the Women’s Center for Justice describes the borough-based jail plan as a “landmark improvement” for incarcerated men and yet a “setback” for women. So while the Women’s Center for Justice is an outgrowth of the borough-based jail plan, support for it requires believing that the new jails that are part of that very plan are, in significant ways, insufficient.

“A lot of the women’s jail proposal is essentially making the argument that these jails that don’t exist and that are supposed to be more humane, won’t be humane enough for the people who would be intended to go to jail,” said Moha. “On top of this, there’s an implicit argument being made that the people who are in the men’s jail– who will remain inside Kew Gardens– don’t deserve access to the same services, to better health care, to social workers, and to therapists.”

A closer look into gender-responsive prisons, jails, and carceral projects reveal that they are rife with these kinds of logic pitfalls—particularly a dependency on the idea that elements of incarceration are inherently bad and yet can somehow be changed through a targeted approach to “women’s needs.” The glue holding these contradictions together is a commitment to sustaining incarceration—despite the horrific conditions that have fueled everyone who agrees that Rikers needs to be shuttered.

Meeting the needs of incarcerated women?

Gender-responsive corrections—prisons, jails, and carceral initiatives designed to target the needs of women—emerged amidst the recent dramatic increase in women’s incarceration. Over the past 40 years, the number of incarcerated women has increased over 700% with much of that rise occurring in local jails as opposed to state or federal prisons. While mass incarceration continues to be framed primarily as a men’s issue, women’s incarceration has grown at twice the rate of men’s. Though the incarceration rates for Black and Latinx women have declined over the past 20 years, both groups still continue to be incarcerated at rates higher than white women.

Research has shown that the majority of incarcerated women are sentenced based on offenses related to substance dependence, untreated mental health issues, trauma, or abuse within their interpersonal relationships—in fact, 77% of incarcerated women are also survivors of some form of intimate partner violence. For women—in ways that are both similar to and unique from men—incarceration can further compound the violence experienced outside. Sexual violence pervades U.S. prisons and jails, and the impact of unmet health care needs, both reproductive and otherwise, has further deteriorated the health, well-being, and dignity of women inside.

While the number of imprisoned women has increased, decarcerative interventions and efforts to decrease recidivism have been shown to be less effective for women than incarcerated men. In many states, there are notably fewer diversion programs offered to women than those offered to men, and according to the Prison Policy Initiative, incarcerated women are more likely to face greater disciplinary sanctions than men even when exhibiting the same behavior. Further, the risk assessment tools used in jails are typically calibrated toward men and thus over-classify women as needing to be in higher security settings than their actual likelihood of escape or engaging in violent behavior would suggest. With that higher security comes not just increased surveillance but also the denial of access to certain educational and rehabilitative services.

Underlying many “gender-responsive” carceral projects is the idea that since women have specific pathways into and experiences within prison or jail, then efforts to reduce recidivism through programs or architectural design must reflect those differences. In practice, this has focused more on mental health care through therapy, trauma-informed counseling, and substance abuse treatment. And as more women entering the carceral system are unemployed compared to their male counterparts, much of “gender-responsive” programming also focuses on job preparation and the conferral of certifications, a process that the #BEYONDRosies campaign calls “Reentry at Entry.”

In addition to focusing on women’s pathways into the system, gender-responsive programming considers how incarcerated women’s needs are typically unacknowledged. Doing so can involve more targeted health care, such as offering free menstrual hygiene products, while other facilities focus on design considerations that could be perceived as more feminine.

Supporters of the proposed Women’s Center for Justice in Harlem tout that the facility will have less surveillance and feature living spaces designed to look and feel more domestic. Bunk beds and bolted down furniture will be remnants of the past, while individual showers, dedicated spaces for cooking and grooming, and less densely populated housing units will be novel features.

While “gender-responsive” correctional programs and facilities do seek to provide treatments more tailored to women’s lived experiences, critics assert that the underlying ideology behind these approaches ignore the role of systemic failures and inequities in favor of promoting “personal responsibility” as a primary means to reduce recidivism. In doing so, this approach can reinforce false notions about what prisons and jails actually do and reinforce the assumption that they’re the only avenue to rehabilitation.

New paths towards the same ends

For critics of “gender-responsive” corrections, how those programs frame recidivism as the result of personal choices ends up leaving out the considerable influence of structural failures and obstacles that lie outside an individual’s control. In the 2013 essay “Pathways, Race and Gender Responsive Reform: Through the Abolitionist Lens,” Emma Russell and Bree Carlton call this “the rehabilitation defense of imprisonment,” or the idea that prisons and jails can be effective tools for rehabilitation. While some incarcerated women may find this emphasis on their actions and choices to be useful, the overall approach still ignores the systemic forces at the root of how women are criminalized—forces that will continue to impact their lives long after their release.

This focus on rehabilitation through incarceration has been the primary ideal underpinning certain gender-responsive initiatives, such as Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work (WORTH), a program within Connecticut’s York Correctional Facility launched in 2018 in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice. Fewer than 20 incarcerated young women aged 18 to 25 participate in WORTH. Each is paired with an older incarcerated mentor and has access to certain facility “amenities,” such as separate rooms for sleeping and activities, recreational programs including exercise classes, unrestricted access to the outdoors, educational services, counseling, and morning community circles. The latter provides space for participants to check-in with counselors and discuss any personal challenges and celebrate recent triumphs.

The program’s name illustrates the underlying ethos of so many gender-responsive programs: that personal achievement alone can be a salve for recidivism. But in addition to how these programs seem unwilling to recognize all of the structural forces that play a role in women’s imprisonment, critics also cite the failure of gender-responsive initiatives to address racialized differences among incarcerated women, which can lead to disparate outcomes for women of color.

In 1990, Creating Choices was launched as an initiative aimed at improving women’s federal corrections. Despite its groundbreaking approach, rooted in ideas like women’s empowerment, respect, and dignity, a 2020 analysis of the program found that it ultimately fell short on a variety of key measures, particularly in its inability to meet the needs of Indigenous women, much to their disadvantage. Since the time of Creating Choices’ establishment, admissions to women’s federal correctional facilities in Canada more than tripled, and the racial demographics of imprisoned women dramatically changed as well. The number of federally sentenced Indigenous women increased by over 70%, and at the time of the report’s 2020 release, Indigenous women comprised 43% of the entire population of federally incarcerated women.

Further, Indigenous women in Creating Choices were more likely to be assessed as high risk and thus were overrepresented in maximum security facilities that undermined their ability to access certain programs and be granted parole. While incarcerated women across the board continued to cite difficulties with accessing proper health care, like dental care, medication, and routine testing, including mammograms and pap smears, Indigenous women, in particular, have struggled with accessing adequate psychological services from culturally competent staff as well as culturally relevant services and programming more broadly.

Essentially, gender-responsive corrections ignore the differences that women experience due to class and gender. The results are simplistic, monolithic approaches to addressing women’s needs and concerns that, as Russel and Carlton write, “will be of limited help to women who face different obstacles because of race and class.”

“It’s still incarceration”

Perhaps the most urgent and enduring critique of gender-responsive facilities, policies, and initiatives is the fear that they will be used to justify the expansion of the carceral system over time. In 2018, the advisory committee to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office released a “Roadmap for Reform,” a detailed blueprint for a new women’s jail in Travis County, Texas. Inspired by features of existing gender-responsive facilities, including Las Colinas Detention Facility in California and York Correctional Facility’s WORTH program, the plan for the Travis County jail centered on a host of principles, including the necessity of fewer restrictions, improved health care, trauma-informed counseling, and ways to ensure the maintenance of family bonds.

However, the project carries a price tag of $80 million and hasn’t escaped opposition from both community groups and local leaders who feel that money can be better spent investing in social services and other non-carceral interventions like robust mental and behavioral health services and detox programs. At a news conference last June calling for a moratorium on construction of all new correctional facilities, Annette Price, co-executive director of Grassroots Leadership, explained that the construction of the jail would relay the message that incarceration is of a higher priority than providing necessary resources for communities to thrive.

“It doesn’t matter what name you give it,” said Price. “[Jail] is a dehumanizing place to put people.”

Price’s point about how language doesn’t obscure the ultimate intent of carceral facilities—to imprison people—reinforces similar concerns that advocates for the Women’s Center for Justice are co-opting feminist language to strengthen public faith in a system that is, at its base, anti-feminist. In fact, former DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi—albeit unintentionally—drove home the limits of rhetoric during a panel about the Women’s Center for Justice earlier this year when touting that the center “would rival some of the progressive cities in Europe … but it’s still incarceration. No one should pretend it isn’t.”

While critics of new gender-responsive prison or jail proposals across the country have grounded their campaigns in shared critiques, it’s important to understand the context surrounding the debates around each specific project. This includes the proposed locations and their current carceral infrastructure, as well as the conditions of existing facilities and how proposed replacements may differ.

On its face, the difficult question that emerges around #BEYONDRosies is how to weigh the potential—some say, inevitable—harm of a new jail against the immediate harm of detaining women in subpar conditions until the day when complete decarceration comes to fruition. However, deeper consideration of the specific context of New York City and the incredibly low number of women currently incarcerated at Rikers—the number hovers around 300—can help make sense of what could otherwise seem like an impossible decision.

“The actual number of people we’re talking about [is] why we need to question narratives around rising crime and the things that are being criminalized,” Moha said. “Are we supposed to assume if 300 women who haven’t been convicted of anything were to be let out, that that’s what’s causing crime in New York City? I think a lot of it is about actually questioning the logic of carceral expansion because as abolitionists there’s a lot we can do to get people free.”

Moha cites relationship building with people inside through letter-writing, organizing alongside their families, and supporting their attempts to seek parole as avenues for abolitionist work. Pressuring lawmakers and departments of corrections can also help usher in immediate improvements to conditions inside.

Interestingly, advocates for the Women’s Center for Justice have held their proposal for the new jail alongside recommendations for how to dramatically decrease the number of women and gender-nonconforming people incarcerated in the city. A report released last week by the Women’s Community Justice Association, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College, and the Center for Court Innovation outlines seven reforms and “gender-responsive strategies” can help decrease the number of people incarcerated at Rosie’s. Through initiatives including a review board tasked with analyzing the case of each person currently incarcerated at Rosie’s, expanded alternatives to incarceration and diversion opportunities, and clearing COVID case backlogs, the population at Rosie’s could be reduced from 300 to just 95.

It’s peculiar then that such dramatic reductions would be followed by investment in a new jail as opposed to new measures that would ensure other women and gender-nonconforming people not enter into the city’s jail system in the future. Organizers like Moha argue that an investment in community-based services that are delinked from the carceral system could be a true commitment to the wellness of women and gender-nonconforming New Yorkers.

“A lot of the framework for the women’s jail is that it’s staffed by social workers instead of correctional officers, that it would offer more access to therapy, there would be more spaces for children to play, for families to visit,” said Moha. “And to that I think the basic question is why does someone need to be incarcerated in order to receive that kind of care, and why does someone have to be incarcerated to receive those kinds of services? Are these women being given the option to access these services outside of Rikers and outside the borough-based jails and potential women’s jail? Are they given options for different kinds of rehabilitation? Are we trying to change laws around the criminalization of sex work or possession or assault?”

Answers to those questions are glaringly clear in a culture that continues to devalue women, ignore how race, class, and other identities intersect to create unique obstacles, and refuse to consider alternative solutions to the carceral system. In New York specifically, perhaps a useful guiding light—albeit one that may glean a different takeaway than intended—can come from the closing lines of The Roadmap for Reform, the blueprint for the new Travis County jail: “As the County makes decisions about next steps for the jail, it is important to remember that we will reap what we sow.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism.

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Tags: prisonswomenjailsprison abolition

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