By Greer M. Ellis
I have lived in Harlem for almost my entire life, and I have witnessed the devastation that mass incarceration has on our neighborhood, community and in my own family. My father, Edwin B. Ellis Jr. aka Eddie Ellis, went to prison for a crime he did not commit when I was 4 years old. By the time he came home, more than two decades later, I was a graduate of Spelman College, married with a child. Despite the walls of incarceration that separated us, he was the most influential person in my life and involved in all of my decision making as a young girl.
My father dedicated his life to fighting for education, dignity and justice for people incarcerated and those who were fortunate to return home to their families. As his only daughter, he always empowered and supported my every endeavor as a young Black woman. He was also a huge inspiration to many of the Black women leading the social justice movement. He recognized the power of Black women and their nurturing ability as the backbone of our families and the entire community. Harlem can continue my father’s legacy of supporting Black women and welcome a new Women’s Center for Justice at Lincoln Correctional Facility on West 110th Street.
It has been closed for several years and now would be a perfect time to repurpose the use of that space to support the needs of women who are impacted by the legal system.
The Women’s Center for Justice could truly heal families and break the cycle of incarceration by addressing the specific needs and challenges of women and gender-expansive people. All staff would be trained in trauma-informed care in a therapeutic setting that focuses on family reunification, skills building, healing and wellness. The approach would be Reentry at Entry with the goal of successful reintegration and reducing recidivism. Service providers, as well as community groups would have space to convene, lead and facilitate programming that address the needs that are specific to women. These services will benefit residents inside and outside of the facility.
Black women in Harlem have been the glue that keeps families together and simultaneously are disproportionately targeted and violated by the criminal injustice system, making them the fastest growing prison population.
The Rose M. Singer Center (aka Rosie’s) on Rikers Island, the only place that the mothers, daughters, and sisters are housed, has been a place of neglect, suffering, violence, and abuse. Fifty-five percent of women and gender-expansive people detained there are Black, and Manhattan is the borough where the highest number are charged. It follows, then, that a facility in Harlem that already exists would be the ideal place to house these women.
The city has agreed that Rikers Island must be closed, and I agree, it should be. Besides its inconvenient location, the place is dilapidated, antiquated and very unsafe for all people, especially women and gender expansive people. With currently under 300 women detained, compared with over 5,000 men, this small group is scheduled to be among the last to leave under the city’s plan to close Rikers. To relocate the women to a shared facility with men in Kew Gardens, Queens, where their abusers would be detained, is potentially worse than Rosie’s. This Kew Gardens facility will undoubtedly threaten and re-traumatize the estimated 77% of women who are domestic violence survivors.
Until 2019, Lincoln operated as a state prison, mostly for people home on work release. It is one of the few places in New York City already zoned as a correctional center. We can use it to break the old model of jail and create a safe, healing place for women, children and the surrounding community. Harlem can transform the current Lincoln Correctional site into a safe, healing Women’s Center for Justice.
I was fortunate to have a tight-knit family that took me to see my father on a regular basis but that is not the case for many children whose parents are detained at Rikers. They will be forced to visit the planned Kew Gardens Facility, which is more of a travel inconvenience. Family bonds between mothers and children will continue to perpetuate a historical cycle of separation, trauma, and incarceration. I, along with many Harlem residents, local elected officials, faith leaders and many in their congregations support this decision to repurpose Lincoln Correctional Facility into a Women’s Center for Justice. Let’s welcome the women and gender-expansive people and their families to Harlem. Many of them already live here.
Greer Ellis is the program manager for the Center for Justice at Columbia University.