A plan to replace the women’s jail on Rikers Island with one in Kew Gardens is encountering opposition from elected officials and activists, who argue that the traditional model of incarceration it would use is inhumane and damaging to communities.
The plan is to move the 300 women held at the Rose M. Singer Center, or “Rosie,” on Rikers Island to one site in Queens when Rikers closes by 2027. The men incarcerated at Rikers would be divided into facilities in four of the five boroughs – including one that would share a building with women in Queens – but because the number of women is much smaller, they would remain at a single jail.
In recent months, however, a growing number of elected officials and activists have raised concerns about the plan. Some think the women should be moved instead to what they say will be a more humane facility in Harlem, the Women’s Center for Justice, at the site of the Lincoln Correctional Facility. Lincoln, a minimum-security facility located on the northern edge of Central Park, was closed in 2019 as the state’s prison population dropped due to a steep decline in the crime rate. In July, another more radical group of activists, including Black liberation scholar Angela Davis, circulated an open letter opposing the plan because they favor ending incarceration altogether.
The Women’s Center for Justice in Harlem would be operated by the city, in partnership with nonprofit groups. Supporters say it would be closer to the families of many women who enter the correctional system from Harlem and the Bronx. Unlike the planned facility in Kew Gardens, they argue, it would be less traditional and restrictive and would better address the needs of women and nonbinary or “gender-expansive” populations.
Rev. Sharon White-Harrigan, the executive director of the Women’s Community Justice Association, which backs the Harlem center, said, “Yes, it would be a secure facility, but it would be one without bars, without barbed wire, without being locked in a cell, and without [the Department of] Corrections operating the building.”
The Harlem facility also has the backing of a group of state legislators, including State Sens. Julia Salazar and Cordell Cleare as well as Assemblymembers David Weprin and Michaelle Solages. In a May 10 letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul, they said a Kew Gardens facility “would create the same or worse conditions than at Rikers.”
“These mothers, sisters, and daughters deserve better,” they said.
The Harlem facility has additional support from criminal justice reform groups including the Columbia University Justice Lab and the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. It also garnered support from feminist Gloria Steinem, who noted in her own letter in June to the governor and Mayor Eric Adams that 81% of women housed at Rikers have mental health concerns while 77% are domestic abuse survivors.
Steinem said the facility “can promote successful re-entry by offering a therapeutic setting that fosters community connections, family unification, and skills building.”
Vincent Schiraldi, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and currently a senior fellow at the Columbia Justice Lab, said in an email that the number of women entering the city’s jails dropped 92.3% between 1998 and 2021. He said the population, which stands at around 300 now, is considerably smaller than those of other big U.S. cities, including Los Angeles and Houston, which each have populations of over 1,000.
The debate takes place against a backdrop of allegations of chaos and violence at Rikers Island, where 11 people have died in 2022 alone.
Aides to Hochul and Adams did not say where they stood on the proposed Harlem facility.
In the meantime, a group of activists who want to abolish incarceration entirely opposes both the Kew Gardens plan and the Harlem facility. The group includes Angela Davis, CUNY scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and organizer Mariame Kaba, who signed an open letter on July 26th stating that they “reject the notion that a new women’s jail could solve the problems of the Rose M. Singer Center.”
“Most of those who would be sent to this ‘Women’s Center for Justice’ are Black and Latinx survivors of gendered violence and systemic racism,” the letter reads. “We know this plan, like other efforts to repackage incarceration as humane and progressive, does not chart us away from the prison-industrial complex."
The letter called instead for “universal pretrial release, investing in non-carceral, non-custodial community-based resources,” and “a present and future without confinement.”