Proposed 200-bed women’s jail deserves more attention, advocates say

A diagram showing the scope of a proposed Kew Gardens jail. The facility would include the city’s lone women’s detention facility. Rendering courtesy of the Mayor’s Office

A diagram showing the scope of a proposed Kew Gardens jail. The facility would include the city’s lone women’s detention facility. Rendering courtesy of the Mayor’s Office

By David Brand

The city’s plan to close Rikers Island jails and build four new detention towers includes housing all detained women in New York City in one central location, a jail in Kew Gardens. But unlike the current women’s jail on Rikers, the Rose M. Singer Center, the proposed women’s facility would constitute one wing inside a larger, male-dominated jail. 

That set up has raised concerns among advocates and local leaders who say women’s specific needs are being ignored in the jail planning process.

“It’s always been that way,” said Kathy Morse, co-founder of Close Rosie’s, whose campaign advocates for the closure of the Rose M. Singer Center and the other Rikers jails. “We’re an afterthought because typically, we think women don’t get arrested.” 

The number of incarcerated women increased nationwide between 2000 and 2017, with many women facing particular barriers to re-entry like a lack of women-focused services, according to a 2018 report by the Sentencing Project. Nationwide, women account for the fastest-growing portion of the incarcerated population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, with the rate of incarceration for women more than doubling the rate for men since 1978. 

City leaders say they can counteract this trend as they develop new jails. 

During a Council hearing Sept. 5, Department of Correction and Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice officials said the city expects to reduce the women’s jail population to 200 detainees by 2026, when the four “borough-based” jails are set to open. The current daily average is about 450 women.

The city estimate is based on bail reforms, alternatives to incarceration programs and projected changes to parole that reduce the number of women jailed for technical violations, the city said.

One of the main arguments in favor of the borough-based jail plan has been to house detainees closer to their homes, or at least near the courthouses where they were arraigned. That won’t be the case for the majority of women detainees — and that’s OK to many advocates, who say women should be housed in one central, women-only facility.

Map courtesy of  @CloseROSies  via DATA obtained from the department of correction

Map courtesy of @CloseROSies via DATA obtained from the department of correction

The Close Rosie’s campaign has called on the city to house women in the state-owned Lincoln Correctional Facility overlooking Central Park or the former Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea, where they would not be housed in the same building as male detainees. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has also recommended the Lincoln Correctional Facility.

“We would be more supportive of this plan if we could be guaranteed that a SEPARATE facility for women and girls, trans, intersex and gender non-conforming would also be built in uptown Manhattan with an adjoining courthouse,” Close Rosie’s wrote in testimony submitted to the City Council on Sept. 5. “Women need to be in Manhattan not in the outer area of Queens.  Manhattan is more convenient to mass transit among other reasons.”

“We have the most to lose: ties to our children, ties to our communities, access to medical and mental health services, access to community programs,” the campaign added.

Queens accounted for the fourth-lowest number of women (13 percent) detained in the Rose M. Singer Center from June 3, 2013 to July 4, 2018, according to detainee zip code data obtained by the Close Rosie’s campaign via the Department of Correction (the city says the number is currently 17 percent). Brooklyn, by contrast accounted for 25 percent, the highest in the city, according to the DOC data. 

Fourteen percent of detained women came from Manhattan, 19 percent from the Bronx and 5 percent from Staten Island. Another 15 percent reported that they were homeless when they were arrested.

Gender-specific services

Morse questioned how the city will provide gender-specific services to detained women, and how they will ensure staff are trained to address issues experienced by cisgender women, trans women and gender-nonconforming individuals in the multi-gender facility. The vast majority of incarcerated women report having experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse and/or domestic violence. Across the country, mothers make up nearly 80 percent of the female prison population and most are single moms, the Vera Institute of Justice reports.

“If you stick them in Kew Gardens, in some tower they’re going to share with men, it means women are not going to have dedicated staff,” Morse said. “Staff will split time between the men housed there and the women … They’re taking a pig and dressing it up.”

Morse was detained at the Rose M. Singer Center and imprisoned at various women’s prisons after she was convicted of stealing from her employer. She said the new facility would need to provide specific trauma-informed care to women who have experienced sexual and domestic violence.

“My biggest concern is women are not going to have equal access to mental health treatment and programming and everything else they need,” said Morse, who was sexually assaulted while at Rosie’s

Officials from the mayor’s office said the city selected the Queens facility because it has the largest “footprint” — the largest perimeter of the four jails. The broader area will enable the complete separation of a 250,000-square-foot, multi-floor women’s unit from the men’s units, city officials said, adding that the larger space also provides room for maternity and nursery unit.

“Starting from the gate, we want it humanized,” Women’s Community Justice Association Executive Director Rita Zimmer told Next City. “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.”

The medical, programming, visitation and recreation spaces will be separate for men and women, while the building’s administrative offices, parking, staff locker rooms, kitchen, laundry, warehouse, mechanical systems and maintenance areas will serve the women’s and men’s units.

Reflecting policy reforms in building design

Councilmember Helen Rosenthal of Manhattan questioned the officials from the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice and the Department of Corrections during the Council’s lone public hearing Sept. 5. 

Rosenthal said she thought questions about how the jail would serve women were a “layup” for the officials, but she was disappointed when the city officials failed to explain how the jail design and programming would address women’s needs.

“They could have said, ‘You’re concerned about women, well we have a birthing room in case someone has an emergency, and there are no shackles against the wall,” Rosenthal said. “That could have been an answer that reflects a more humane infrastructure.”

Rosenthal cited a recent case of a woman giving birth alone in a Colorado jail and the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman held in solitary confinement despite a history of seizures, as the types of horrifying experiences women face behind bars.

Councilmember Helen Rosenthal said the city needs to better explain provisions and staff information for the proposed women’s jail in Kew Gardens. Photo by William Altratriste via City Council/Flickr

Councilmember Helen Rosenthal said the city needs to better explain provisions and staff information for the proposed women’s jail in Kew Gardens. Photo by William Altratriste via City Council/Flickr

Solitary confinement, which the DOC calls “punitive segregation,” will continue in the new women’s jail. City officials said pregnant detainees are seen by Correctional Health Services at a minimum of every four weeks until 28 weeks of gestation, every two weeks between 28 and 36 weeks and every week from 36 weeks until delivery. 

“I want to see in the infrastructure of the new jails how they are getting rid of solitary confinement,” Rosenthal said. “I didn’t hear any thought given to the new unique features of the women’s jail. It’s completely inhumane."

Then there is the serious issue of sexual violence against detained women. Substantiated reports of sexual assault and harassment have increased at the Rose M. Singer Center in recent years, including several lawsuits filed against male corrections officers, the New York Times reported last year.

Male and female corrections officers will work in the women’s facility, though DOC is improving gender-focused, trauma-informed training for staff, city officials said. 

Rosenthal said she wants to see more done to ensure an end to sexual violence against women in detention.

“If it’s not a separate building then there are real questions of how they keep men out,” Rosenthal said. “If a woman corrections officer doesn’t show up and they need another officer, they’ll grab a man — that’s not good enough for me.”