By Tandy Lau
Five women testified in front of city council during its Rikers Island hearing last week on the harrowing conditions that those jailed at Rose M. Singer Center face. They mentioned violent prison guards, cramped quarters, widespread COVID-19 infections and the lack of heating during the harsh New York City winters. But when “Rosie’s” closes in 2027 with the rest of Rikers, where will those formerly housed by the women’s facility go?
“We asked ‘what about the women?’” said the Rev. Sharon White-Harrigan, one of the five women to testify. “It always seems that women get lost in translation, that women get lost in conversation, or we’re an add-on—[they say] ‘oh yeah, and the women, too’ without thinking that the women are included…it’s very important because they are the heart, the pulse, the root and the core of the community.”
Currently, the cursory plan is to send them to a proposed Kew Gardens detention center in Queens, one of four borough-based jails planned to replace Rikers. The space will be split by gender, and the facility’s entrance will be shared with men. Theresa Ortiz, who spent time last year in “Rosie’s,” addressed potential safety concerns in her city council testimony.
“I think the city’s plan to move women from ‘Rosie’s’ to Kew Gardens with men is a bad idea,” said Ortiz. “I feel really uncomfortable with men, and I know it would retraumatize women. It’s setting up a bad situation.”
According to the Women’s Center for Justice (WCJA), over three-fourths of women in “Rosie’s” are domestic violence victims. In fact, the nonprofit fears they will be jailed in the same building as their abusers. Additionally, there’s no promise that conditions will be any different from Rikers Island. After all, jail is jail.
But it doesn’t need to be like that. The WCJA, which White-Harrigan serves as executive director for, offers an alternative: #BEYONDRosies. The movement proposes turning the vacant Lincoln Correctional Facility on 110th in Harlem into a women’s center to hold those formerly jailed in “Rosie’s.” The decarceration facility would apply a “reentry upon entry” model offering professional development and family-reunification. That includes child-friendly visitation for the 70% of “Rosie’s” occupants who are mothers. White-Harrigan, who was arrested and charged for murder after killing her attempted rapist in self-defense, lost a year with her daughter due to the inaccessibility for visitors at Rikers.
Additionally, a large swath of women in “Rosie’s” are from Harlem and the Bronx. A women’s center at Central Park North next to a B and C train station would be significantly more accessible to their families than a facility at Kew Gardens. And traveling to the Queens’ neighborhood could be a poverty-tax, as the hour-plus commute would likely require multiple transfers and a round-trip ticket for the Long Island Railroad.
To be clear, the women’s center is not abolitionist. The door will be locked and those inside will not be allowed to leave. But it is not a jail. And those held at “Rosie’s” are largely awaiting trial and presumed innocent until proven guilty.
“All jails are secured facilities, but all secure facilities aren’t necessarily jails,” said White-Harrigan. “You have psych wards [and] inpatient drug treatment that are secure, right? We’re not looking at rebuilding a jail. We’re looking at a justice center for healing…because Kew Gardens is a new jail that they[’re] build[ing]. So we don’t need to build another new jail. We want to do something different that hasn’t been done before.”
Author’s Note: We corrected misspellings of White-Harrigan’s name in the initial article. Additionally, the only women, not gender-expansive individuals, were accounted for in WCJA’s statistic on domestic violence. Lastly, we changed “sense” to “center” and “posts” to “pulse” after clarification from the sources.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w