‘The number one priority for both city and state government right now must be to create a humane, accessible trauma-responsive center in New York City for the small population of women and gender-expansive people that will remain incarcerated.’
This much is clear: New York’s new plan to move women and gender-expansive people off of Rikers Island to a prison 40 miles out of the city is not the long-term solution to the unconscionable conditions in city jails.
A real solution would be to divert justice-impacted women to community-based alternatives, housing and other community services. This is one of the main tenets of our #BEYONDrosies campaign, which has long advocated for the closure of the Rose M. Singer women’s facility on Rikers.
The fight for the women and gender-expansive people in Rosie’s is personal for me, as well as many of my sisters and siblings in #BEYONDRosies. I was incarcerated, first at Rikers Island and then at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, which is the very same prison the women and gender-expansive people of Rosie’s are being transferred to under Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor de Blasio’s new plan.
The dehumanizing conditions inside these facilities is unfortunately all too familiar to me and many of the women in #BEYONDrosies. We know the pain of being separated from our loved ones and the devastating uncertainty of not knowing what the future holds.
But we also know there are other ways to deal with women and gender-expansive people who end up in our justice system—and those methods should be utilized. Too often, they are locked up and forgotten about, especially those who are charged with violent crimes.
Research and experience tell us that the majority of women and gender-expansive people are themselves survivors of trauma. Take Rikers. Over two-thirds of the women at Rosie’s have experienced intimate partner violence, and nearly a quarter have serious mental illness. The vast majority have not been convicted of any crime. They’ll eventually end up back in the community with the added trauma of time spent behind bars.
Women need support, housing and wrap-around services, not incarceration. It is well established that this is the best approach for healing justice-impacted people and enhancing public safety.
While this transfer to Bedford was not the social justice outcome we have been fighting for, it is happening. In fact, despite our calls for a pause until there was time to provide individual assessments for all of the Rosie’s population, the transfers have already begun. It is imperative that it is done right.
To that end, #BEYONDrosies is working with our fellow advocates and services providers to prevent any unnecessary transfers to Bedford. That means advocating for the quick release of women who can be better served in alternatives-to-incarceration and community-based programs.
Since time is of the essence, we need all five New York City district attorneys, judges and defense attorneys to step up. They should make sure everyone eligible gets appropriately placed, and they should do this quickly. Lives are at stake.
Meanwhile, Gov. Hochul stated that this transfer was temporary, and we will hold her to her word. On the day these transfers were announced, #BEYONDrosies said we looked forward to working with our first female governor towards finding a permanent solution for the people at Rosie’s. We meant it. Finding that permanent solution means being clear about all of the hard work we need to do.
So let’s be clear: the number one priority for both city and state government right now must be to create a humane, accessible trauma-responsive center in New York City for the small population of women and gender-expansive people that will remain incarcerated.
We do not mean erecting Rosie’s 2.0. That would be a tragedy. The city and state must meet this moment of change and transformation that we are living in by creating a new, healing-focused center that treats women with respect, safety, dignity and justice.
None of this will be easy. Change never is. But this transfer has shone a much-needed spotlight on the women and gender-expansive people of Rosie’s. For the first time, people are seriously talking about Rosie’s and what we need to do going forward.
Of course, we need more than just talk. We need city and state leaders to put the women and gender-expansive people of Rosie’s first by taking concrete actions that will finally improve their lives for the better. The transfers aren’t the answer, but if done right it can be a beginning. Let’s get started already.
Sharon White-Harrigan is the executive director of the Women’s Community Justice Association, which leads the #BEYONDrosies campaign to shut the Rose M. Singer women’s facility on Rikers Island.