Can New York City Replace Rikers’ Women’s Wing With a ‘Healing’ Jail?

Activists want the city to design a new women's jail from the ground up, through a gender lens.

A preliminary rendering for a proposed jail in Queens, which New York says will have a separate wing for women. Both city officials and advocates from outside the government say that women in jail in New York need a place where they can be treated, not punished. (NYC Office of the Mayor)

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New York City is one step closer to razing Rikers, a jail complex so dirty, dangerous, dehumanizing, and isolated that it’s slated for closure in 2026.

The city council on Sept. 5 held a public hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $8.7 billion plan to build four smaller, gentler detention centers located across the city, where people awaiting trial could be closer to courthouses and to family and legal counsel. Though community resistance to the planned highrise jails remains fierce in some neighborhoods, the city insists Rikers will close.

It is already emptying out. Thanks to dramatically lower crime in New York and to new criminal justice reforms and drug laws that keep more pretrial detainees out of jail, the daily population at Rikers has shrunk from 22,000 in 1991 to 7,200 today. By 2026, it is expected to hit 4,000 — small enough to be divided up into the four new local jails.

But one already tiny population on Rikers should be relocated much sooner, activists say: Women.

There are 450 women are at Rikers on any given day, most of them at the Rose M. Singer Center, or “Rosie’s.” Their numbers are dropping so fast that within a few years City Hall expects just 200 women will be jailed in New York City. According to Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, incarcerated women will be housed in a wing of the otherwise all-male jail currently slated to open in the Kew Gardens section of Queens in 2026.

Advocates for incarcerated women worry that’s too little, too late. Women, generally speaking, end up in jail for different reasons than men. They’re more likely to be arrested for drugs, larceny or sex work — non-violent crimes of survival and poverty — than for gun possession or homicide. Incarcerated women are usually crime victims themselves, too. At Rosie’s, 77 percent of the women are domestic abuse survivors and 86 percent have been raped, according to the Women’s Community Justice Association, an advocacy organization pushing to close Rosie’s by 2020.

These traumas may be repeated at Rikers, which is battling at least three lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by guards at Rosie’s, according to The Appeal, and has settled several others. Staff there has also been accused of both “gross negligence” and “gross incompetence” for failing to provide necessary medicines and misdiagnosing health conditions. In June, a transgender woman with epilepsy died of complications from a seizure while at Rosie’s. The federal government ranks the Rikers women’s jail among the United States’ most dangerous.

Activists and city officials envision a replacement for Rosie’s that’s “designed from the ground up with a gender lens,” says Carole Eady Porcher of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

That means recognizing the root causes of women’s crimes, learning from their specific issues experience at Rikers, and acknowledging their acute trauma — then building a detention center where women may be treated, not punished.

“Starting from the gate, we want it humanized,” says Rita Zimmer, of the Women’s Community Justice Association. “We want it operated in a way that people understand where the women have come from and what they have been through, often starting in childhood.”

Citing the extreme social, economic and emotional vulnerability documented among the women at Rikers, advocates insist that New York’s next women’s jail must be designed to heal. They are working with the city to ensure an environment that feels less like prison than it does a college dorm, with clusters of five to seven private rooms — not cells — centered on a common living space. There, residents could cook, socialize, and talk through their troubles. There’d be room for programming like classes, group therapy, art and exercise. There’d be a women’s health clinic.

A jail specially designed for women must also feel safe — the kind of place rape survivors and trans women can actually sleep at night. It would smell fresh. Lots of sunlight would lighten the mood. And, critically, all the guards should be women.

”Men are triggers for women in many ways,” says Sharon White Harrigan, director of the Beyond Rosie’s campaign. “You wouldn’t have alcohol at an AA meeting. Why would we put women near men when we’re trying to heal the women?”

City officials agree. They say the women’s wing at the planned Queens detention center will have its own entrance, recreation spaces and elevators, ensuring the complete separation between male and female detainees. From the perspective of someone in custody, it will seem like a standalone facility, according Alicia Lauer, communications director at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Since 80 percent of women at Rikers have children, New York’s new women’s detention center will have a comfortable space for family visits, too — maybe even a place for kids to sleep over. At Rikers, the visiting room is so foreboding, with its armed guards and hard surfaces, that children are often withdrawn, or refuse to come. Most women will stay at Rikers for just a few weeks, studies show, but the many negative consequences of a fractured parent-child bond can last a lifetime.

“Whether they were arrested for selling drugs or selling their bodies to take care of their kids, they still have a right to see their kids,” Eady Porcher says. “And the kids have the right to see their moms.”

Some New Yorkers find the idea of jail as a safe space for recovery and family bonding implausible. A vocal camp of criminal justice reform advocates want Rikers closed and no new jails built to replace it, no matter how clean or compassionate. Researchers have made a case for closing down all women’s prisons, too, arguing that incarceration only exacerbates the personal crises that lead women to get arrested in the first place. What these women need is stable housing, therapy, and maybe drug treatment, they insist — not jail.

Still, say supporters of the Beyond Rosie’s campaign, there are women in jail in New York today, and they are the most socially, economically and emotionally vulnerable people on Rikers. That’s why New York can’t wait until 2026, when the proposed community jails open, to get women off the island.

The Women’s Community Justice Association is pushing the city to take over a newly decommissioned, 275-bed men’s prison in Manhattan called the Lincoln Correctional Center.

They believe that its central location, nearby public transportation and standalone nature makes Lincoln a better place to build the kind of “transformative” justice center that incarcerated women might actually find helpful.

“This is the right moment, the climate, the culture, to talk about justice,” says Sharon White Harrigan. “New York has an opportunity to get it right.”

City officials say there are legal and architectural obstacles that make the Queens facility a better choice for incarcerated women. The future of that plan — and New York’s other three proposed community jails — will be decided at a city council vote, likely this fall.

This article has been updated to correct the year by which the Beyond Rosie’s campaign wants to close the Rose M. Singer center.

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Catesby Holmes is a writer and news editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in Slate, Travel + Leisure, and WIRED, among other outlets. 

Tags: new york cityprisonswomen

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