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NYC Activists Push Back Against Proposed “Feminist” Women’s Jail in Harlem

Opponents of the proposed women’s facility in Harlem affirm “there is no such thing as a feminist jail.”

The group Survivors of Rikers, family members of inmates and prison abolitionists gather outside of City Hall on October 12, 2021 in New York City, following a series of inmate deaths at Rikers Island.

Part of the Series

Prominent mainstream feminists have been increasingly advocating for a proposed women’s jail in Harlem. Earlier this month, feminist activist Gloria Steinem urged New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams to act on the proposal.

Steinem claimed the proposed jail would dovetail with the political aims of the feminist movement, saying that, “Women and gender-expansive [people] at [the Rose M. Singer Center state prison at Rikers Island] deserve safety, dignity and justice, and New York City can deliver with a Women’s Center for Justice at Lincoln.” New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante echoed Steinem’s sentiment earlier this month in a column, “What Would a Feminist Jail Look Like?” Bellafante suggested that victims of domestic and sexual abuse could find healing with the social setting of the proposed jail.

However, prison abolitionists resoundingly oppose this proposal and insist that true safety and healing requires the release of incarcerated people and investment in high-quality social services for people upon their release. These opponents of the Harlem women’s facility affirm “there is no such thing as a feminist jail.” As they see it, freedom from violence is a foundational part of feminist politics, and prisons are inherently violent institutions.

The trend of self-described feminists promoting new jail construction in New York in the name of protecting the women trapped within them is over a century old. Jarrod Shanahan’s new book Captives details the history of jail reform and expansion in New York City and shows many instances of jail construction in which progressive reformers led the charge to build safer jails for women and queer people. One after another, plans to fix women’s jails resulted in “reformed” facilities that devolved into crisis, signaling the rise of the next jail — with more funding and more beds.

Advocates for Women Built These Jails

Throughout the mid-20th century, New York City’s most prominent avatar of women’s caging was the House of Detention for Women, located on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Greenwich Avenue, in the heart of bohemian Greenwich Village.

This facility housed a disproportionately Black and working-class population of prisoners arrested for sex work, drug possession, and other so-called crimes. The Women’s House was characterized, above all, by its proximity to city streets and the noise generated inside; women could shout to passersby, communicate with loved ones in plain sight and broadcast the dismal conditions inside to anyone who would listen. Thanks to this regular practice, the recurrence of prisoner revolt, and the high-profile captivity of political prisoners like abolitionist Angela Davis, the brutality of Women’s House became widely known to the public. Increasingly, broad swaths of New York City activists, including much of the city’s feminist movement, opposed the jail.

But, of course, the Women’s House had not been built with the stated intention of reproducing racist, misogynist class violence. Its construction was advocated by Progressive Era women’s activists, including the temperance movement and the Women’s Prison Association, and it counted many suffragists among its supporters, including the Women’s City Club of New York. The campaign for a new women’s jail to replace squalid facilities for detained women began in 1910 and continued for several decades, during which time many of the same activists fought for and won the right to vote. These activists also pushed for the installation of progressive penologist Ruth Collins as the jail’s first superintendent.

However, most of these reformers did not grapple with the question of whether it was safe or just for women to be locked up in the first place. The call was not to “free them all”; instead, the progressive demand was to build “better” cages.

Soon enough the Women’s House had fallen into infamy, in part because it was used not just for women detained before trial, as had been planned, but also to absorb those who had already been sentenced from the smallpox-laden hovel that housed female prisoners on Blackwell’s Island. Overcrowding, sexual assault of prisoners by doctors and guards, routine rebellions and press coverage of these issues meant that by the 1960s, the Women’s House was a scandal. Department of Correction Commissioner Anna M. Kross, herself a product of the suffragist milieu that had campaigned for the jail, called it a “shocking penal anachronism.”

In response, as part of a centuries-long process Shanahan describes in great detail throughout Captives, the Correctional Institution for Women (CIFW) on Rikers was opened in 1971 with colorful walls and a new architectural style, which planners promised would alleviate the social ills that had plagued the Women’s House. But within a few months of opening, CIFW became the subject of numerous investigations for overcrowding and failing to provide basic medical care to incarcerated people. The charge of keeping up with the increased numbers of arrestees from law-and-order policing turned out to be more than the reformers could handle. As the CIFW fell into disrepair and capital for jail construction flowed into the Department of Correction, plans were made for a new women’s jail with even larger capacity.

In 1988, 17 years after the opening of CIFW, the promise of a new, modern women’s jail facility was part and parcel of larger jail expansions taking place on Rikers Island. This new jail, the Rose M. Singer Center, known colloquially as “Rosie’s,” had a total capacity of 1,150 including connected modules from the CIFW and the nursery for expectant mothers. It was named after the Board of Correction member Rose M. Singer, who long advocated for the humane treatment of female prisoners. The jail was, according to Singer, intended to “be a place of hope and renewal for all the women who come here.” However, it was no such place.

#CloseRosie’s and No New Women’s Jail

In 2020, Singer’s granddaughter Suzanne publicly criticized her grandmother’s namesake, describing it in The New York Times as “a torture chamber, where women are routinely abused, housed in unsanitary conditions, and denied medical and mental health services.” Suzanne Singer recently endorsed the proposal for the women’s jail in Harlem, agreeing with Steinem, Bellafante, and other carceral feminists that the only solution to the horrendous conditions on Rikers for women is to create a separate and “safer” jailing facility for women and nonbinary people.

What motivates a feminist organization to hawk this jail as the only solution to the violence at Rosie’s? The authors of the original proposal from the nonprofit Women’s Community Justice Association show their hand when they explain how the facility will be run. They state that it would be “operated by a nonprofit ‘reentry upon entry’ model focused on trauma-informed care…. The Department of Corrections’ presence limited to securing the perimeters.”

While guards would still be involved in keeping the facility separate from the Harlem neighborhood beyond the walls of the jail, the Women’s Community Justice Association imagines itself as the warden of the facility. This would put it in a better position to secure long-term city funding and foundation grants, as the first nongovernmental organization to operate a “gender responsive decarceration” human caging complex. That is, until headlines of abuse break, and a new jail plan must be devised once again.

To generate public support for the Harlem jail, the Women’s Community Justice Association has created a campaign called #BeyondRosies to emphasize the horrors of the Rose M. Singer Center and attract pro-jail “progressives” to their cause. This campaign is akin to the #CloseRikers campaign, a to build four new jails in boroughs throughout the city. The group #CloseRosies has recently declared the proposed Harlem jail a “win”.

Though #BeyondRosies and #CloseRosies rightfully condemn the abuse and neglect that people endure at Rosie’s, they simultaneously support the construction of more cages and attempt to co-opt the power of New York City political movements that have rejected incarceration in all its forms. These grassroots, truly decarceration-oriented efforts include the Community in Unity campaign against a similar women’s jail in the Bronx in the mid-2000s; the original grassroots #ShutDownRikers campaign in 2014; and the abolitionist organization No New Jails NYC, which opposed the borough-based jail plan in 2018-2020.

No matter how proponents frame their calls for a new women’s jail, history shows us that the abuse endured by incarcerated people will not be solved by newer cages. The humanitarian crises that typify these jails are symptomatic of the racist and capitalist social order of American society. Only steps that work to undercut this social order will mitigate the social ills that are quarantined in American jails.

As Young Lords militant Denise Oliver explained about CIFW when it first opened, “The only thing that’s nicer about it is that it’s not as old, so there’s probably not as much dirt collected in the place. It is still a prison. The conditions are still the same.”

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