When Carole first heard that she would be transferred from the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, she was cautiously optimistic.
“They sold us a real good story,” she told New York Focus. (Carole’s name has been changed to avoid retaliation.)
Carole described the facilities at Rikers, where she was being held before her trial, as “dilapidated.” At Bedford Hills, a maximum-security women’s prison in Westchester County, “I figured maybe we’d have more freedom, be allowed to walk around,” she recalled.
But when she arrived at Bedford Hills, she said, “they immediately started treating us like state property.” She was forced to submit to a strip search. She had to ask and receive permission to go to the bathroom, which she could only do at set times. She was only allowed a narrow window of time to eat.
“If you don’t eat fast enough, you have to pick up your tray and throw the food away,” she said.
The guards were rude to her and the other transfers from Rikers, she said, and denied them services – like regular access to phones – that they had previously received at Rikers.
“We’re gonna make an example of you Rikers girls,” Carole recalled one of the officers saying.
Carole is one of about 100 women and trans people who have been transferred from Rikers’ women’s wing to Bedford Hills so far. The controversial plan, announced by Mayor de Blasio and Governor Hochul in October, is meant to reduce deadly overcrowding at the city jails on Rikers Island.
Yet the women, their attorneys and some state legislators contend that the transfer creates a whole new set of problems. Women are sent far away from their families and support circles, their lawyers, and the programs essential to their release, only to arrive at a maximum-security prison that receives far less public scrutiny than Rikers but, according to people incarcerated there and outside monitors, has serious problems of its own.
For years, activists have called on lawmakers to close Rikers Island, where eight of the city’s 10 jails are located. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to close the jail complex within 10 years. As the jail population swelled to 5,500 following the roll back of bail reform and increasingly harsh arraignment decisions by judges, and guards stopped showing up to work, conditions have worsened. Since last December, 14 people have died in custody.
At a joint press conference on October 13, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Kathy Hochul said the city and state governments were committed to working together to solve the problem.
The first step in the mayor and governor’s plan was to close the Singer Center and transfer the 230 or so women and trans people housed there to Bedford Hills. Once the Singer Center was empty, the 400 or so guards assigned to it could be reassigned to the more crowded men’s facilities at Rikers.
One criminal justice reform group, the Women’s Community Justice Association (WCJA), initially applauded the plan.
“Governor Hochul has made this a historic day for the justice-impacted women who have been leading the #BEYONDRosie’s movement to close Rose M. Singer for years,” WCJA executive director Rev. Sharon White-Harrigan said in a press release shortly after the mayor and governor’s announcement.
The WCJA later qualified its support for the plan, and White-Harrigan published an op-ed in November, titled “Transferring Women and Trans NYers From Rikers to Prison is Not the Solution.” The WCJA also announced that it will monitor the transfers from Rikers to Bedford Hills and will lobby for people to be released back into their communities instead of being transferred.
Other criminal justice reform groups opposed the plan from the beginning, as did many of the incarcerated people who the plan was ostensibly designed to benefit. In October, almost 70 women incarcerated in the Singer Center signed a petition opposing the planned transfers, and three women who have already been sent to Bedford Hills are now reportedly planning to file a class-action lawsuit against the city.
White-Harrigan, who was recently named to Mayor-elect Adams’ transition committee, told New York Focus that she still believes the situation on Rikers is so dire that anything is better than the status quo.
“It’s not the best solution, but it’s one nonetheless,” she said, noting that the announcement of the transfers had generated news coverage about incarcerated women, who are often left out of public discussion about Rikers.
In a statement, the Department of Correction pointed to the upsides of the move.
“We understand that any new adjustment can be challenging but we’re working to make the transition as seamless as possible,” the statement reads. “We are communicating with every person who is transferred on what they can expect during the move and when they arrive.”
The department cited a list of programs available to the women of Bedford Hills and claimed that they’re better than the ones offered at Rikers. “We know that this move will afford people in custody the same or better services and programs than they received on Rikers Island. This decision also gives our transgender population the option to transfer to Bedford Hills if they choose.”
‘I Am Not State Property’
Alicia, who spoke to New York Focus on the condition that her real name not be used, is no stranger to the horrors of Rikers. She has been held in pretrial detention at the Singer Center for over a year and has described the conditions of the jail to her family members in phone calls.
Her sister Sandra, who also asked that her real name not be used, said that Alicia once broke down crying on the phone.
“She’d been in there two weeks,” Sandra said. “There’s not enough food, there’s thirty of them to a cell, no working toilet, it’s freezing.”
But as bad as Rikers is, Alicia said that she is even more afraid of being transferred upstate—far away from her family, her lawyer, and the drug counseling program that is key to her release.
“I don’t want to go, I am scared,” she told New York Focus. “What about my medications? My programs? I don’t trust I’ll get the same services. I am trying to get released to a program.”
At least at Rikers, she said, she is close to her support circle. “I want to be close to my family,” she said. “I am not state property to be moved to an upstate prison.”
Lawyers whose clients have already been transferred upstate described a chaotic process that has added to their clients’ concerns.
Deborah Lolai, the supervisor of the LGBTQ project with the Bronx Defenders, told New York Focus that she has not received any advance notice of her clients being transferred.
“We weren’t given any information, directly impacted people weren’t consulted,” she said. “They said they’d send a list of transfers in advance to help prep clients before they go. That’s still not happening. We don’t get those names. It’s an indication of how little thought was put into this process.”
Lolai said that her clients have overwhelmingly opposed the transfer. Her trans clients, in particular, are concerned about how they will be treated at Bedford Hills.
“People are upset, they do not want to be there,” she said. “The harm coming from [the] transfers outweighs any of the small good things.”
Rosa Cohen-Cruz, the Policy Counsel and Team Leader on immigration for the Bronx Defenders, told New York Focus that she is especially concerned about the impact that the transfers will have on undocumented prisoners. Unlike the city jail system, the state prison system shares information with ICE and assists federal immigration investigations.
Cohen-Cruz said that the city Department of Correction has assured her that transfers’ immigration status will not be shared with ICE, but she still remains wary.
Often, both lawyers said, undocumented immigrants and trans people will take a plea deal in exchange for serving their time in a city jail like Rikers rather than at an upstate prison.
Stuck in Prison
Early last month, Carole received welcome news: her trial had been scheduled, and she was supposed to be released on Friday, November 19. Her toiletries and medications were packed up in preparation for her release. On Friday, though, she was not released. (She was later told that Bedford Hills never releases people on Fridays, though she is not sure that is actually true.) For the next two days, she had no access to her medications and toiletries, which were already packed up. She was finally released on Monday, November 22.
The state Department of Correction and Community Supervision (DOCCS) did not reply to a request for comment about conditions at Bedford Hills.
Felicia Henry, Director of Research and Policy at the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), a court-appointed prison monitoring organization, said that Rikers gets disproportionate attention, compared to prisons, because it’s in the city, because of high turnover, and because lawyers and watchdog groups have relatively easy access to it.
“DOCCS does an excellent job of hiding what’s going on [at upstate prisons],” Henry said.
The last time she visited Bedford Hills, she said, the women incarcerated there told her of conditions equally dire as those at Rikers, she said: “Being hit, beat up, slammed, punched, stomped out, threatened by folks or by correctional staff.”
“There’s sexual misconduct by staff,” she continued. “Many women we talked to saw or experienced sexual assault, rape, male officers watching them shower and go to the bathroom.”
On Wednesday, State Senator Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), chair of the chamber’s Crime and Corrections Committee, and Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas visited Bedford Hills along with CANY staff. After the visit, Salazar told New York Focus that she believes the prison is among the worst in the state.
“Basically, you took people from the least bad jail on Rikers Island and put them in one of the most restrictive prisons in New York,” she said.
Salazar and Gonzáles-Rojas
outside of Bedford Hills (courtesy)
According to Salazar, the women incarcerated at Bedford Hills are only allowed out of their cell for five hours each day. Both city jails and most other state prisons allow significantly more out-of-cell time.
Salazar said she observed particularly harsh forms of punishment at Bedford Hills, including the the widespread use of controversial “deprivation orders.”
“At Bedford Hills, they use deprivation as an extra-judicial form of punishment — including depriving people of phone calls, religious services, recreation time, and even food,” she said.
Salazar also pointed to tensions between the Rikers transfers, many of whom are awaiting trial and could be released in a matter of months, and the state prisoners incarcerated at Bedford Hills, some of whom have been sentenced to life in prison.
“On the one hand, it’s not appropriate to treat someone who is legally innocent [because they are being detained before they have gone to trial] as though they are convicted of a crime with a maximum-security level,” she said. “That is absurd. But on the other hand, it is also a recipe for disaster to have incarcerated people in the same facility who are treated completely differently.”
Inside the prison, she said, many Rikers transfers have been housed in the same units as state prisoners, despite the city’s initial promise to house them separately. The two groups coexist uneasily, with members of each claiming that the other has received preferential treatment from prison staff.
Incarcerated people, their families, and their attorneys have all expressed concerns about the difficulty of communicating with pretrial detainees who have been transferred to Bedford Hills.
Carole said that the staff at Bedford Hills allowed her hardly any phone time to speak to members of her family or even her lawyer.
“You can’t call your family,” she said. “It’s very lonely. Your family is what keeps you going. … They were telling me I had limited time to [call] my lawyer. They were always telling me to get off the phone.”
In-person visits can also be difficult to arrange, due to Bedford Hills’ distance from the city.
Lolai, from the Bronx Defenders, said that it can take her an entire day to travel from the city to Bedford Hills and back, which means busy public defenders will have a harder time seeing their clients in person.
According to Carole, one woman transferred to Bedford Hills was told that she can’t see a judge until February because of the logistical problems of getting women back to the city during the holiday season.
“I just hope they change for the women still there,” she said.
To allay fears that families will not be able to visit incarcerated people at Bedford Hills, the city pledged to provide a daily free bus shuttle from the city to Bedford Hills and back. But the shuttle is not always reliable, as New York Focus discovered.
On two separate occasions, a New York Focus reporter waited at the site in downtown Brooklyn where the shuttle to Bedford Hills was slated to arrive. Both times, it never showed up. At one point, a shuttle for visitors to Rikers arrived instead.
The driver, who identified himself as a DOC employee, was unable to tell New York Focus when or where the bus to Bedford Hills was supposed to arrive.
Alicia’s mother still does not understand why the state would decide to put her daughter in a maximum security prison.
“You don’t put addicts in prison, you put them in rehab,” she told New York Focus. “Addiction is not an easy thing. And Bedford … it’s hardcore people.” She’s worried that her daughter will get beat up once she is transferred to Bedford Hills. She’s also concerned for one of Alicia’s friends at Rikers, who is pregnant and worried about the stress of the move on her baby.
“We know Rikers is dire,” Sandra, Alicia’s sister, added. “But it can’t be cured overnight. I don’t think transferring any of these folks to Bedford is a good solution. Not even close.”
Peter Sterne contributed reporting to this article.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Felicia Henry’s role at CANY. She is the Director of Research and Policy, not a research fellow.