The small cell on the seventh floor of the Bayview Correctional Facility, the former women’s prison on the far-west side of Manhattan, hasn’t been occupied in years, but the window remains covered with a crosshatching of stiff metal, as if still determined to prevent breakouts.
“Day in, day out, you [would] look out the window and see life go by,” recalled Suki, a woman with a warm smile that reaches all the way to her mascaraed eyes, who asked to be identified by her first name only. The smile disappeared a few times as she showed her old cell and other parts of the prison to a small group of strangers and recounted her time inside. Outside, just beyond the window, Chelsea Piers, a 28-acre sports-and-entertainment complex, sprawled toward the Hudson River.
“You [would] see tour buses go by and they would look up and wave because the tour guide would tell them this was a correctional facility. We would wave and yell back.” That window, Suki remembered, was her lifeline to the outside world.
Suki, now in her 50s, spent the last third of her nine-year incarceration at Bayview in that cell. When she finally walked out the front door onto Eleventh Avenue in August 2006, she had no desire ever to go back. But nearly 11 years later, on a freezing January morning, she returned to the former prison, this time to help celebrate the transformation of the building, which had once caged her and hundreds of other women, into a Women’s Building, which will be a hub for women’s organizing and advocacy.
Suki was among three formerly incarcerated women who had agreed to lead a film crew and several advocates up and down the building’s eight floors as they remembered their days of confinement. Later that afternoon, some 200 people, including feminist icon Gloria Steinem, gathered in what used to be the prison’s gymnasium to commemorate a transformation that few of the building’s old residents ever could have imagined. It’s the first time that New York City will have a dedicated Women’s Building, and the first time that such a building will emerge from a former women’s prison.
The Women’s Building is the dream child of the NoVo Foundation, a private foundation supporting efforts to end violence against women and girls. In 2013, nearly three years after Hurricane Sandy flooded the prison, New York State granted the foundation a 99-year-lease to the building, and NoVo has been working since then with the women’s real estate development company the Goren Group to redevelop the former prison.
As an essential part of the transition, the NoVo Foundation has partnered with the Women and Justice Project, a nonprofit that centers the leadership of currently and formerly incarcerated women to end mass incarceration. They came together to ensure that women who have been imprisoned, both at Bayview and elsewhere, are integral to the planning process. Thus, formerly incarcerated women are involved in focus groups to plan the building and interviews to choose the architect. And they played a critical role in preparations for the Women and Justice Project’s event celebrating not only the building’s transformation but also the resistance and resilience of women incarcerated across the country.