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As Rikers Closes, What Will Happen to the Women?

In closing Rikers and expanding rehabilitative community-based justice services, the City of New York is following through on its promise to improve justice, dignity and safety conditions for women and men who are detained. But as the City prepares to close Rikers by 2026 and construct four new borough-based “justice centers,” Our immediate concern is to ask: What will happen to the women?

We have an answer and it has come to us from women with lived experience and women impacted directly by the criminal justice system-incredible leaders like DeAnna Hoskins, Sharon White-Harrigan, Kandra Clark, Carole Eady, Cheryl Wilkins, Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin, Donna Hylton and Vivian Nixon to name a handful. The power of their leadership as well as many others, part of the BEYONDrosies2020 campaign, have redefined what is possible and helped us to reimagine justice, dignity and safety for women to ensure that their unique needs are fully addressed. While the borough-based plan is a real step forward, here are some ways the City can demonstrate it is committed to transformative justice for women. First, we believe that the City could close Rikers’ Rose M. Singer Center for Women sooner and certainly before 2026, the stated closure deadline for Rikers. After criminal justice reforms are implemented in January 2020, including pre-trial reforms, changes to the bail system, diverting women suffering from mental illness and substance abuse into treatment programs, and redirecting women to alternatives to incarceration programs, fewer than 100 women will be awaiting transfer to a new facility. Currently, there are under 400 women on Rikers.

Second, the City should uphold the privacy, dignity and humanity of detained women by establishing a total stand-alone women’s facility, and design one that improves how they are housed and how they access wellness services. We cannot repeat mistakes of the past. This is an opportunity to start over. Women on Rikers island report extraordinarily high rates of substance use disorders (85%), histories of trauma or violence (80%), and mental illness (60%). In most cases, these women have been traumatized for years by men. This should be taken into utmost consideration moving forward, especially when considering how the City houses and treats these women, being careful not to re-traumatize them with exposure to people that remind them of their victimizers.

The justice system extends far beyond detention walls. This is especially true when it comes to women, as they are the glue of their families and communities. Indeed, 85% of the women on Rikers Island are mothers, many with minor children, and any new facility design must include space for children and families. Disrupting their lives also disrupts the lives of their loved ones and the people who depend on them. There are unique long-term, societal consequences for how the criminal justice system interacts with women.

What is needed is a wellness-focused women’s center. A facility that would help break the cycle of incarceration and recidivism by establishing rehabilitative, holistic support networks for justice-involved women and the LGBTQIA+ community. This means providing detained individuals with recovery and trauma-informed treatment and operations that prioritize safety, empowerment, and skill building.

We appreciate the leadership of the City and the City Council to establish Borough-based justice centers, bringing people closer to their home communities, families, and lawyers – rather than an inaccessible, toxic island. New York City owes its justice-involved population what has been denied to them for years: dignity, respect, and the chance to rejoin and contribute to their communities. All of the centers should be focused on wellness and recovery.

Rita Zimmer is the President of the Women’s Community Justice Association and HousingPlus. Both provide community-based housing and comprehensive services to women, including women with children, to support them in overcoming poverty, homelessness, addiction, trauma, and the effects of incarceration, in order to build lives of stability, and to define and realize goals for themselves and for their families.

Sharon White-Harrigan is the Executive Director for the Beyond Rosie’s 2020 campaign at the Women’s Community Justice Association that works to both transform the NYC justice system for women and elevate the experiences of women impacted by the system.