By Staff Writer Zeqi Chen
In May 2022, a proposal titled The Women’s Center for Justice: A Nation-Leading Approach on Women & Gender-Expansive People in Jail, respondedresponds to concerns about New York City’s current plans to close Rikers Island by 2027. The current alternative to Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail on Rikers Island, is to build a new facility for women and gender-expansive people as part of a larger men’s jail in Kew Gardens, Queens. But the proposal states that “New York City should transform the closed Lincoln Correctional Facility at West 110th Street into a Women’s Center for Justice. ” According to the proposal, this approach is designed to highlight the unique needs for trauma-informed care, family reunification and skill building that female inmates need as mothers and victims of intimate partner violence or domestic violence. Rose M. Singer Center, which Proposal claims is the site of nearly all female and gender-expansive populations in New York City jails, not only fails to meet these needs but leaves many with additional trauma upon their return to the community.
New York Times critic, Ginia Bellafante, describes the proposed replacement in terms of a “feminist jail.” But from plantations to lynchings, history shows that punishment in the United States is part of a system of oppression that has always been racialized and gender-based violence. The juxtaposition of the words jail and feminism is jarring. We need to be wary of the re-polished violence that lies beneath the supposedly innovative, progressive, and feminist language.
The feminist jail proposal is not the first attempt in history to create gender-responsive jails. The trend to establish women’s centers dates back to 1910 in New York’s Greenwich Village, a center of radicalism, civil unrest, and rising crime. The Rose M. Singer Center, a women’s jail on Rikers Island, was designed to improve the jail environment. Described as a state-of-the-art initiative that began operation in 1988, the institution was seen as an alternative solution to the problem of female incarceration. Rosie’s founder, Rose M. Singer, called Rosie “a place of hope and renewal for all the women who come here” at its opening ceremony.
Decades following its opening reveal, that those incarcerated at Rosie are often in fatal situations. In the same month that the Women’s Center proposal was announced, Mary Yehudah, 31, who had been detained on robbery charges, died while imprisoned at Rosie. While Rosie was a gender-responsive and trauma-informed facility at the time, its occupants continued to suffer sexual and physical violence.
A similar history follows Rikers Island, which was also intended to replace the overcrowded and abusive Blackwell’s Island. Yet, Rikers continues to be known for its overcrowding and violence today. Once considered a humane alternative to Blackwell’s Island, Rikers now faces a humanitarian crisis. As of December 2022, 19 people have died at Rikers Island, meaning it is on track to be the deadliest year in nearly a decade. Shutting down the violent Rikers Island, then, and creating a progressive feminist women’s center is a repetition of a history of prison reform that has been tried and failed countless times. Building a reformed institution to replace the original violent one, then establishing a new one that will become violent again, is a pattern of repeating violence. As soon as the doors of the feminist jail are locked and guarded by Department of Corrections (DOC) guards, it will be another jail– another future Rikers.
History proves that building new prisons is violent and, therefore, cannot be feminist., So, can building a better jail that addresses the needs of women be feminist? The proposal describes the shift by expressing that “Lincoln could be designed and operated to reduce harm, promote healing, and break the cycle of incarceration.” The Women’s Center is not the first proposal to promote gender-responsive initiatives. The soon-to-be-shuttered Rosie, which has received praise for catering to the needs of incarcerated women, has a modern 25-bed nursery and vocational training in gardening, sewing, and culinary arts. The center has also built a restaurant called The Rose Garden for this purpose. In addition, yellow, blue, fuchsia, rose, and other colors not commonly found in prisons were used to build Rosie.
The proposed feminist jail aims to construct the new women’s center with the same logic used to build Rosie. The Women’s Center will reduce surveillance and feature “home-like” living spaces. The new center reflects a “campus-like” feminist concept of the new facility by contrasting it with the Rosie facility. The proposal states that the role of Corrections Officers at Rosie, who monitor activities within the jail and determine punishments and rewards, is now a thing of the past. The new Women’s Center will be staffed by more women and will adopt a social work mindset to promote rehabilitation with an encouraging, supportive, and solution-oriented attitude.
In terms of facilities, the new proposal notes that Rosie lacks private rooms, bathrooms, and other private spaces for women, while the new Women’s Center will ensure that women have individualized space and privacy. The proposal argues that Rosie’s metal furniture, including bunk beds and screw-in furniture, will be replaced with separate showers, cooking and beauty rooms, and low-density housing units. WCJA executive director, Ms. White-Harrigan, told the New York Times, “It is about creating a new culture that allows people to get to where they need to be. There is justice without punishment. You can hold people accountable without leaving them worse than when they came in.”
Ms. White-Harrigan’s view of Women’s Centers as sites of restorative justice represents a common misconception that elements of incarceration that are inherently violent can be transformed into justice through approaches that target women’s needs. Regardless of how facilities are improved, this approach is premised on responding to the lives of incarcerated individuals within prisons rather than abolishing prisons or reducing the population within them. The repackaging of prisons through our rhetoric should be met with caution.
Words such as feminist, female needs, humane, different, and gender-responsive mask the ultimate intent of prison facilities to incarcerate people. Prisons that deny people freedom of movement and tear apart families and communities are violent—even if the arresting officers are trained in trauma-informed arrests.
Whether or not prison guards are called social workers, people being verbally, physically, and sexually assaulted by guards perpetuates violence. The language trap triggered a trend of advocates choosing the feminist language to whitewash violence in order to increase public confidence in reform. Feminist language became a factor in advocating new violence that was confined to individual punishment, masking the expansion of the prison complex through its radical, progressive, and emancipatory character. Thus, reforming the cage does not eliminate violence. Prison by its very nature is an inhumane place to cage people, and one cannot pretend that prison is not because of the modifier of nonviolence.
Assuming that better prisons can achieve feminist goals, the examination of a larger system of oppression is ignored, and the focus shifts from social structures to the incarcerated individual. The proposal repeatedly emphasizes that the purpose and direction of jail design are to “address the needs of women and gender-expansive people.” The word “need” was mentioned 42 times in the body of the proposal, including mental and physical health needs, safety needs, family needs, and skill-building needs. The emphasis on need incorrectly assumes that these measures are actively demanded by incarcerated women, and then that the creation of feminist prisons is the best way that criminalized, gender-oppressed people can hope for.
The emphasis on individual needs shifts the root cause of women’s entry into the prison from a systemic failure to an individual failure. The proposal states that the Women’s Center employs skills-building designs focused on re-entry to break the cycle of incarceration, such as diet and smoking cessation, suggesting that entry and recidivism, also known as re-offending after being sanctioned for a previous crime, stem from a lack of personal qualities. Viewing incarceration as a result of personal choice ignores the powerlessness of the individual over the structure of society. The proposal also cites ‘The Nordic Model’ as a success story that attempts to demonstrate the viability of gender-responsive principles.
The Nordic Model supports the successful reintegration of detainees into society by providing employment and educational services. Gender-responsive programs of all kinds are based on the same assumption that overcoming recidivism rests on individual success. Even if the original intent of creating gender-responsive facilities was to create better living conditions for incarcerated women, this approach ignores the systemic failures and injustices responsible for individual offending.
Building better prisons for women’s needs is not feminist because it avoids the systemic oppression and discrimination that is played out by society beyond the individual and ignores the root causes of women’s criminalization. Furthermore, the process of implementing gender-responsive prisons reinforces the distorted logic that prisons are conducive to rehabilitation and that a better prison is the only solution to oppression after gradually forgetting the nature of prison violence and believing that building real care can happen in the cages that hold people.
What’s the next step in abolition? What would a world without jails look like? I prefer to rephrase this question as to what would a society look like without incarceration as a solution to problems? When overcrowded jails perpetuate violence, we should reconsider the construction of social justice. The first thing needed is to free the imagination. Moving from imagining a just society that consists of impartial police and an orderly system of incarceration to exploring a system that does not aim at punishment is an important step toward abolition.