NYC Rally  Calls for Release of Women Inmates at Rikers

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Rikers Island

Rikers jail complex, New York City. Photo by Formulanone via Flickr

“Say her name, not just his. Say her name, not just his. Say her name, that’s what it is.”

That was one of the many chants shouted at the entrance of the Rikers Island detention facility in New York Tuesday, when the Justice for Women Task Force, among other organizations and demonstrators, joined forces to protest conditions faced by women behind bars.

The protesters, who wore face masks, focused on the Rose M. Singer Center for female detainees, in an effort to spread awareness about what they say are the substandard conditions and abuse women detainees face, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.

With a special hashtag for the campaign— #WhatAboutHer—protesters said their principal goal was to win the release of all women held at the facility, and end the use of what Dara Baldwin, one of the group’s organizers,  described as the use of solitary confinement as a method of dealing with COVID at the Rose M. Singer Center.

“This is not an appropriate place for women to be during the COVID pandemic,” said Baldwin, who spoke via a Facebook link.

Although New York jails do employ 23-hour punitive segregation, and those confined to the most restrictive punitive segregation have at least four hours of daily access to outdoor recreation, TV time and showers, a female inmate at Rikers described conditions in individual cells as “isolation.”

The female inmate had tested positive for COVID. There are no current active cases in the city’s jails.

Although DOC Press Secretary Jason Kersten states restrictive housing and punitive segregation have never been used for COVID quarantining, there are individual cells for women at a certain level of “clinical need,” according to Correctional Health Service’s Director of Communications and Intergovernmental Affairs Jeannette Merrill.

Sexual abuse at Rikers was another subject brought up at the rally.

The Rose M. Singer Center staff have been accused of sexual abuse against inmates and retaliation against women who speak out, in recent years.

In response to the protesters’ allegations, the New York Department of Correction (DOC) has issued the following statement:

We take the safety and well-being of those who work and live in our facilities seriously, and under this administration the Rose M. Singer Center has achieved significant milestones when it comes to improving safety, including becoming the first DOC facility in history to achieve compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

 We have also significantly reduced the use of punitive segregation not just at Rosie’s, but at all DOC facilities, and we have committed to exploring ways to safely eliminate its use altogether.

 Notable speakers at the rally included the founder and CEO of Brides for Life,  Darlene Jackson, who is running for city council from the Bronx; Ruth McDaniels, a Harlem-based candidate for New York City Council; Tahtianna Fermin, CEO and founder of Bridges4Life; and  former Rikers inmate Louisa Liverpool.

Rikers has come under fierce criticism for the treatment of detainees, many of whom have not been convicted of anything and are awaiting trial.  In fact, New York City agreed to shut down the facility, one of the nation’s largest, by 2026 after authorities deemed it too broken to repair. Inmates would be transferred to smaller facilities around the city.

Although there are currently no active cases of COVID-19 in the city’s jails, there is still concern for the conditions the women inmates will face until then, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A powerful moment of the rally occurred when a speaker held up a slice of bread she said Rikers women detainees are fed.

It was “hard as a rock,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This updates an earlier version of the story, with comments and response from DOC authorities.

This summary was prepared by TRC new intern Laura Bowen.

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