By Phineas Rueckert
Founded in 1979, Providence House has helped formerly incarcerated women transition back to society through housing assistance for 40 years. It operates a 15-person transitional housing facility in Brooklyn, located in a former convent, and partners with other community organizations across four other transitional housing locations, including one in Jamaica.
Danielle Minelli Pagnotta, who worked for more than a decade at New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, took over as the organization’s executive director in 2017. In addition to her role at Providence House, Pagnotta is also a member of the Women’s Community Justice project and a Queens resident.
The Eagle spoke with her about the campaign to close the Rose M. Singer Center — also known as Rosie’s — at Rikers Island, where fewer than 500 women are currently detained, the needs of formerly-incarcerated women and how the ULURP process for determining land use could affect women currently housed at Rikers.
Disclaimer: This interview was conducted on Tuesday, June 11 in advance of the ULURP Public Hearing.
Eagle: Tell me a little bit about the challenge of housing women who are coming off of Rikers and why it’s important to have supportive housing facilities for them.
Danielle Minelli Pagnotta: We’ve been working with women coming out of prison for a long time and what we’ve found is that the women coming off of Rikers have many complex needs, especially around mental health services and trauma. Women coming off of Rikers have been there for shorter amounts of time and are still very connected with their communities and so we work to really connect people right back to those families. Our plan and our goal is to break the cycle of trauma that they experience when they’re on Rikers and sometimes where they’re coming from.
Right now, we have a capacity to take 15 women in a transitional setting and we partner with other ATI [Alternatives to Incarceration] programs who are doing this kind of court-mandated collaboration. We’re really just providing the housing. We see this as a critical need. We don’t think that someone should have to sit on Rikers because they’re homeless and don’t have somewhere to go, so we can provide that housing as they work to transition back into the community.
What are some of the roadblocks for closing down the Rosie’s and how are you trying to advocate for Rosie’s being closed?
Historically, Providence House is a service-based organization and we have our hands a little bit in advocacy, but I like to think that we’ve really stepped into it a little bit more in the past couple of years. I think that you can provide direct service and that’s important but you also need to understand the systemic challenges that your populations are facing.
We have wholeheartedly joined on with the Beyond Rosie’s campaign and are advocating very directly with the city — the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice — for a standalone facility for women that the city has now decided to implement. I think that’s very much a part of the Beyond Rosie’s campaign’s urging: we would like to see a more centralized women’s facility and are still trying to push for that. There are a couple of potential buildings in the city. You’ve probably heard about the Lincoln Facility that the state is about to release that we think would make for a good setting for women. But I think in terms of barriers at this point, it’s really just time and citing. What’s exciting is that this is a really unique moment in the city where there’s a lot of energy around criminal justice reform, and also getting people into community settings. And so I think some of it is just going through the ULURP process that’s happening right now, and getting those buildings approved.
I wanted to talk to you about the ULURP process and how it pertains to Queens. The Borough President is going to be holding a forum on Thursday. What’s going on with that and what’s the importance of this step of the ULURP process?
I was actually at the two community board meetings that addressed the same topic and I’m planning to be there on Thursday. As a Queens resident, it’s important to me to be able to say that I think community-based settings are so much more important. Providence House is really focused on families and so much of what happens to people when they’re sent to Rikers is about their distance from their families. If [the jail is] in Kew Gardens, it could take a whole day to get through the clearance to see your loved one and that time away from family, whether you’re a man or a woman, quite frankly is completely detrimental to someone’s life. They could lose jobs, they could lose connections to their children. So I’m going to be going to those meetings to further advocate for the fact that community-based jails are important to keep people closer to their homes, especially when they may not even have been convicted and that can help keep them tied to their communities more.
Overall, the ULURP process is important. We live in a city that has to let these things play out — and everyone is entitled to their voice, whether it’s in agreement with mine and my stance or not. I’m happy that the community board and the borough president and the council members are all tied into this process. I feel that that’s a useful process for the city to undergo and that people have a chance to express their opinions.
Within this context, there’s a few different groups advocating for a few different things. You have for example the No New Jails folks who are very adamant about having no new jails built, obviously, and then you have on the other hand the Close Rikers campaign which does seem to support the borough based facilities. What do you say to the people in that No New Jails group who are very outspokenly against the borough-based jails plans?
Providence House supports closing Rikers as quickly as possible and the best way to do that right now is to open community-based settings to get people into the types of programming and services that they need. Anything else would be prolonging keeping Rikers Island open. In terms of the women, there are so few women there — less than 500 at this point — that we think the Rose M. Singer Center can be closed in the next year or two. Any other stance would be prolonging what we all agree — on both sides of the fence — is a really horrible place for people to be put.
If there is this possibility of closing Rosie’s in the next year or so, what does that look like, that process of actually shutting it down and moving these women to another facility?
That’s where I would turn to the platform of the Beyond Rosie’s campaign. We think that the population can be parceled out so that many people can be going to community-based programs like the one that I described earlier that we run. There are folks that have mental health needs that might need to go to a different setting. With some of the bail reform efforts that came through and as that rolls out, we might see a lot of that population just released until their trials come to fruition. So, I think there’s a lot of opportunities to peel off different populations and really whittle the population down to probably a group of women that’s fewer than 100, and that’s why we are pushing very hard for one setting for women. It doesn’t make sense to situate fewer than 100 women across four male-based jails. Women have very specific needs; we don’t want whatever iteration of a women’s jail to be an afterthought or an add-on to a male based facility. It’s important to us that there’s trauma and gender-informed programming there; that there’s a nursery; that there’s appropriate mental health services and behavioral services; that there can be spaces only for women; that their children can come and go in a more seamless way than they’re currently doing on Rikers. So, that’s kind of the thought of what the next couple of years can look like.
One thing that’s been in the news lately is the death of Layleen Polanco, a trans woman who was found dead at Rikers. Do you see that as maybe another momentum-building moment that’s happened that could push for Rikers to be closed even sooner?
I think any death while someone is inside is a tragedy. I believe the details are still to be determined and I’m interested, obviously in what the investigation will uncover. I’m hoping that it doesn’t support some of the negative things we’ve seen in Rikers’ past, but I can’t really comment on what happened. If there was something negative that happened there, then yeah I think that that could help push the bar along to close Rikers even sooner, but at this point it doesn’t seem like there’s clarity about what really happened.
Do you think there has been enough attention paid to the women who are currently detained at Rikers Island?
Our focus is women and so that’s what I can speak to. We’re in this hopeful moment where there’s a lot of attention overall on what’s been going on at Rikers. We’ve got a City Hall and a Mayor that is supportive of closing it down, and I think everyone will say this: it’s a rare opportunity for our community that won’t come around again in this lifetime. This is our chance to get criminal justice right in the city. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to see this through.