Governor Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that nearly 230 women and trans-identified people held at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex will be transferred to two women’s prisons—Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities in Westchester County. Beginning October 18, transfers of 10 to 20 people will occur twice a week. After being tested for Covid, the new arrivals will be integrated into the prisons’ existing housing units, rather than separated into their own unit.
While some advocates have applauded Hochul’s latest action as “the right fix for the time being,” many others, including some who have been incarcerated at Rikers, have denounced it. “You can’t take people from one hellhole and put them in another. I’ve been locked in Rikers Island. I’ve been locked in Bedford Hills. Both these places cause death and despair,” said Anisah Sabur, an advocate with the #HALTSolitary campaign.
Violence and other abuses, which are now receiving heightened media attention, have long plagued Rikers. In 2011, people confined at the jail filed Nunez vs. City of New York, a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Correction (DOC), alleging widespread excessive force. Three years later, in 2014, then–US Attorney Preet Bharara deplored the “deep-seated culture of violence” and joined the lawsuit against the city. The following year, the lawsuit reached a settlement, which included the designation of a federal monitor to oversee the implementation of reforms to dismantle the culture of violence.
But over the years since, the violence has only skyrocketed. As DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi stated during an October 1 Assembly hearing, the 10 Rikers jails now hold 700 more people than in the year before the pandemic. Approximately 1,500 of the nearly 6,000 detained people have been awaiting their day in court for more than one year. Meanwhile, correction officers, who have unlimited paid sick leave, are calling in sick by the thousands, with nearly 20 percent absent in July alone. Officers that do come to work continue to use excessive force and violence. During the first nine months of 2021, 14 people have died in custody—including one person who contracted Covid and died this past weekend and another who died on Monday. Meanwhile, social distancing remains impossible, allowing Covid to spread. As of October 1, 11 percent (or 591 of the 5,588 detained people) had Covid.
“The culture of abuse is not much better here,” a woman currently at Bedford told The Nation. (She asked that her name be withheld.) While Bedford does not suffer the staffing shortages and extreme overcrowding of Rikers, the two share other similarities. In 2019, monitoring agency the Correctional Association of New York conducted a survey of 110 people incarcerated at Bedford, which in 2019, incarcerated 745 people (and, as of Monday, has 524). Seventy-four percent stated that they had witnessed some form of violence or abuse by staff, including physical, sexual, and verbal abuse. Over half (53 percent) reported that they themselves had experienced these acts of staff violence.
ZB spent three weeks at the Rikers women’s jail and one week at Bedford before being released in September. He agrees that moving women and trans people to the women’s prisons won’t change the potential for staff abuse. While he was never the target of physical violence by Bedford’s staff, he recalled instances of staff violence towards others. He also said that officers refused to recognize his gender identity. “My pronouns are he/him,” he said. “Officers don’t want to call me ‘he.’ They called me ‘she.’”
While Bedford is not as overcrowded as Rikers, multiple women reported being unable to social distance there. “When we go to medical, we go together. When we go to the package room, we are all together. When we go to commissary, we are all together,” said one woman at Bedford, who asked that her name not be used.
Bedford has had two Covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic. Less has been written about Taconic, the medium-security women’s prison across the road from Bedford Hills, which currently incarcerates 166 people. A 2018 surprise inspection by the state’s inspector general “revealed a workforce that is largely lackadaisical about its professional appearance” as well as an employee locker room filled with a dozen cots and mattresses, liquor bottles, nearly three dozen boxes of confidential records, and evidence of a romantic relationship between a staffer and a woman who had since been paroled. The previous year, two prison employees were arrested for having sex with incarcerated women. (Relationships between staff and incarcerated people are illegal under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.)
In September, Hurricane Ida blew in a new problem—contaminated water at both women’s prisons. One woman told NBC News that the water smelled like sulfur and copper and tasted like dirt and chemicals. She said that approximately 40 people went to the prison’s clinic complaining about stomach problems from the water; all were sent back without treatment.
This isn’t the only time that people at Bedford have reported not being treated. In August 2019, Deatrice Morris began experiencing constant headaches. “I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want the light on. It was 24 hours,” she told The Nation. But at Bedford, as at Rikers, seeing medical staff requires submitting a sick call slip, waiting for approval, and then being escorted to the clinic by officers. “If the nurses don’t feel like it’s a medical situation, they won’t see you,” Morris said. (A 2015 report by the Correctional Association also noted this.) Morris waited a month before she received medical attention, only to be told she had migraines. The extreme headaches continued for the next nine months before disappearing in early May 2020.
When Morris lost her sense of taste in 2020, she requested a Covid test, but, because her temperature was normal, staff refused. (The Department of Correctional and Community Supervision [DOCCS], which operates New York’s prisons, told The Nation that incarcerated individuals are tested when exhibiting symptoms and after a medical evaluation is conducted.) She began experiencing shortness of breath, and while lying in her bed several days later, she thought she heard someone whistling at her over the dormitory’s partitions. She stood up and looked around. When she lay down, she realized the whistling was from her breathing. Soon, speaking even three words left her out of breath. Still, she was not tested for Covid.
Morris was released from Bedford in June. “I wouldn’t wish the devil himself in there,” she said.
DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey stated that transfers from Rikers will include people awaiting trial. The city’s Department of Correction, which has experienced record staff absences, will be responsible for transporting them to court, though DOCCS will implement the software for virtual court appearances. He also noted that both Bedford and Taconic are both operating “well below capacity.”
All six of the city’s public defender organizations have condemned the planned transfers. “This decision will create new harms for these women, disrupting their access to due process, their children, families and support networks. It throws into chaos a carefully calibrated web of services which ensures that women are prepared for reentry back into society upon release,” stated Tina Luongo of the Legal Aid Society. “This move is rushed, ill-conceived and will surely inflict further trauma on our clients. We again demand decarceration.”
Members of the City Council–appointed task force to advise on trans, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex people in DOC custody have drafted a letter urging the governor, mayor, and City Council to stop the transfers. “This ‘temporary’ band-aid does nothing helpful to the people in custody currently suffering in this time of crisis. It merely transfers one set of harms experienced by a vulnerable population to another, and in fact it exacerbates them,” Task Force members wrote.
On Friday, Grace Price, an advocate with the Close Rosie’s campaign, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order in federal court. In her motion, Price, who was incarcerated at Rikers in 2011, argued that by separating women and girls from their home boroughs’ support systems, the transfer violates both the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection and Title IX.
Deatrice Morris, upon learning about the governor’s announcement, thinks that the transfers won’t result in better conditions. “That’s all it’s going to change—the location,” she said.
At least 128 women at Rikers agree and have signed a petition opposing the transfers. “How does making female detainees more isolated and less able to meet with counsel, court, advocates, and visitors address the emergency? It doesn’t,” the petition states. “If you’re going to declare an emergency, we insist that the government shoulder the burden, not the women who are already subjected to lengthy detention. A tolerable solution is to negotiate release conditions, not to further bury chronic violations of due process.”