In mid-October, after ongoing protests about the violence and abuse at Rikers Island, as well as repeated calls from community leaders to close the island jail, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced the transfers of approximately 230 women and trans people from the New York City complex to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a women’s state prison 45 minutes north of the city. Despite outcry from advocates and women at Rikers, transfers began the following week.
Six weeks later, 118 people have been transferred from Rikers; of those, 106 remain at Bedford. In early December, after weeks without Covid-19 at Bedford, people there began testing positive. The prison began locking people in their cells for 23 hours without testing.
As of December 8, 19 people incarcerated at Bedford are currently positive and 82 tests are currently pending. This includes three people transferred from Rikers Island.
“We knew [the transfer] was going to have a potentially devastating effect,” said Kelly Harnett, who has been incarcerated at Bedford since 2015. “but we didn’t know to what degree.”
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) says that local jails are responsible for testing people before they are transferred to state prisons. But multiple women at Bedford told The Nation that the new arrivals often told them that they were not tested before transfer.
“Abigail,” who is awaiting trial, was transferred in late November. Her mother said that Abigail was not tested before leaving Rikers or upon arriving at Bedford. She and the other arrivals were held for one week in the prison’s reception area before being assigned housing units.
Now, says her mother, Abigail is in a prison dormitory with 50 others. Her mother worries about her safety, especially after Abigail said she was threatened by a group of six women. She also worries that her daughter, in an open dormitory with dozens of others, could contract Covid.
Abigail’s mother lives in western New York. Abigail’s best friend, who lives in New York City, visited her at Rikers. Now, Abigail is 45 minutes north of the city—and far from public transportation—and has received no visits. She has also been unable to contact her attorney, despite her January court date.
Finally, Abigail’s mother wonders why her daughter, who is technically “innocent until proven guilty,” is in a maximum security prison. “She might not even get sentenced to prison,” she told The Nation, adding that this is her daughter’s first arrest. “She could get probation. She hasn’t even had a trial.”
“Using Covid as a Weapon to Control Us”
At Bedford, Covid testing remains sporadic and random. “You could go six months or you could be tested two times in one week,” said Harnett, who had not been tested for over a month. The DOCCS confirms that it conducts random testing on asymptomatic people.
On December 2, Bedford began placing multiple housing units on a modified schedule. During previous quarantines, women had been restricted to their housing units. This time, they were confined to their cells for 23 hours, with only five people allowed out at one time. During that hour, they had to choose between showering, calling home, washing clothes, or syncing their prison-issued tablets to the kiosk to send or receive messages.
Those 23 hours locked in are also draining. “During quarantine, you do not get to rest,” explained Harnett. “Every time you fall asleep, the doors open for food, medication, temperature check, etc. It is really exhausting.”
On December 3, 19 women refused to lock into their cells when their hour ended. Their action delayed a prison procedure in which the staff counts every single incarcerated person to ensure that no one has escaped.
“We didn’t create a violent demonstration. We solely, only wanted to be heard and wanted administration to be notified about how things were running,” explained Tiona Rodriguez, one of the participants. “While in quarantine, you are not allowed to go to visits or classes, nor are you allowed to even go to your doctor’s appointments.” She added that no one on her unit had tested positive, yet they had nonetheless been placed on this schedule.
“They’re using Covid as a weapon to control us,” said Harnett.
The delay alerted DOCCS officials, who sent investigators to the facility. Rodriguez and the others told the investigators their complaints about the sudden quarantine, the 23-hour lockdown, and ongoing conditions, including mistreatment by members of the staff.
“This incident has been a result of ongoing conditions regarding the facility’s care for incarcerated individuals,” Rodriguez said. “And more so now during Covid. It has only gotten worse since Rikers Island came into the facility.”
After investigators left, four protesters were moved to the solitary confinement unit. Rodriguez and others were told that they would be confined to their cells for 23 hours each day.
The next day, Rodriguez was informed that she had been placed on “out-of-cell deprivation,” keeping her in her cell for 24 hours and unable to use the phone, kiosk, or shower.
After two days, Rodriguez said she passed out when staff brought her breakfast tray. “They didn’t call medical or do anything but ask me if I was okay and left,” she said. “I haven’t eaten anything in days because they keep bringing us cold food, and it’s disgusting. I haven’t been drinking water because this sink water is nasty too. They won’t allow me to go outside for fresh air, it’s so hot in this cell. I feel like I am going to die in here and they don’t care.”
Growing Calls for Immediate Action
By December 6, some units were taken off quarantine. But, said Harnett, though someone on her unit had tested positive several days earlier, none of the remaining women were tested. Instead, staff took their temperatures, then lifted their quarantine. (The CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people get tested five to seven days after exposure.)
“I finally got to shower. I went almost 31 hours without showering. I was bathing in a bucket on the floor this morning,” Harnett said. “I really don’t feel right mentally after this quarantine.”
Rodriguez was kept on deprivation status for another two days. The prison charged her with violating five prison rules—including demonstration, unauthorized assembly, and delaying the count. Each charge carries the potential of up to 100 days in solitary confinement.
On December 8, members of the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), a nonprofit monitoring organization, Assembly member Jessica González-Rojas, and Senator Julia Salazar visited Bedford. Multiple women told them about the demonstration—and the ensuing deprivation orders. “We heard about it everywhere,” said CANY Executive Director Jennifer Scaife. “People were very upset about it.” She described an atmosphere in which women felt dehumanized and abused.
“Bedford was one of the most restrictive facilities that I’ve visited throughout the DOCCS system,” Salazar told The Nation, noting that even before the transfers began, most women were allowed no more than five hours out of cell. “I visited Attica in July, which has triple the population size. It was not as restrictive. That says a lot.”
These restrictions have also delayed women’s release dates. Salazar spoke with one woman whose prison sentence technically ended the previous month. She remained in prison because her sentence required her to complete a program that has been suspended because of the ongoing pandemic. Her release date has been postponed to February 2022. The DOCCS stated that people with conditional release dates must fulfill other criteria before being released.
Salazar was the lead sponsor of the HALT Solitary Act, which, beginning in April 2022, limits solitary confinement to 15 days. As part of HALT, the DOCCS phased out keeplock—a punitive regime in which people are confined to their cells for 23 hours each day. But, said both Salazar and Scaife, these deprivation orders are essentially keeplock. “It’s even worse in some ways to use a complete deprivation of privileges and keeping someone in their cell for that long,” noted Salazar.
Adding to the tension are the constant changes to prison policy. “If the whole point [of the modified schedule] was to promote social distancing and reduce movement because of the pandemic, why would you end it?” Scaife recalled multiple women asking. “Especially when you have an outbreak of 19 cases at the prison and a variant of concern is surging?”
“People are at a breaking point,” one woman told them.
Three women from Rikers are filing a federal lawsuit to stop the transfers and reverse those that have already happened.
For now, the DOCCS has stopped transfers from all jails to Bedford. But the continual fears of Covid outbreaks, prolonged lock-ins, suspended programs, changing and conflicting policies, and widespread feelings of dehumanization and mistreatment remain.
“These transfers have brought attention to the severity of conditions that existed before the transfers, but it’s a shame it’s taken that,” said Salazar. “The Department and the governor need to act immediately.”