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What Would a Feminist Jail Look Like?

by News Desk

Four years ago, she helped found an organization called the Women’s Community Justice Association, with the aim of improving the lives of incarcerated women. Recently, she has been focused on getting the women’s facility at Rikers closed ahead of schedule.

Conditions at New York City’s largest jail are notoriously bad, but little attention has been paid to the circumstances of female detainees, 80 percent of whom are mothers and 77 percent of whom are victims of domestic violence. Currently, the city plans to close Rikers entirely and move to a system of smaller “community” jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens by 2027. But the Rose M. Singer jail — incongruously known as “Rosie’s” — will be the very last to shut down, even though women are far less likely to get into trouble while incarcerated and far less likely to reoffend, according to Vincent Schiraldi, the city’s former corrections commissioner. In 2019, women arrested in New York were 49 percent less likely than men to be arrested for a violent crime within one year.

Of the roughly 5,400 people currently kept at Rikers, only around 300 are women. What confounds Ms. White-Harrigan and Mr. Schiraldi, who now presides over Columbia University’s Justice Lab, is the city’s plan to move the female population to a facility in Queens that would have to be built from the ground up and that would be connected to a men’s jail. As several members of the New York State Legislature put it in a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul asking for an alternative, the proximity puts women at risk of exposure to their abusers.

As it happens, there is an alternative, whose implementation ought to be self-evident. Advocates are proposing that the women be moved to a vacant state prison in Harlem, shuttered in 2019 and closer to some of the neighborhoods in which many women entering the system are coming from, crucially making it easier for their families to visit, which is known to reduce recidivism.

The argument made in a recent paper produced by the Justice Lab and Women’s Community Justice Association is that prisons have been historically designed for men and have neglected the particular needs of women — chiefly that they are caregivers and that they so often have been the victims of violent crime. In effect, rehabilitation, including therapy, should begin immediately, the entry process sped up so that women aren’t spending days in central booking without access to a shower, for example. And more women, the paper argues, should be on staff at the facility.

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