Women Are Not Safe on Rikers Island

We number in the hundreds of thousands. We have faced hardship and survived unjust systems hidden by the shadow of brutal jail structures. We are women directly impacted by the war on drugs and the system of mass incarceration.

We are working to close Rikers Island in the shortest timeline possible, and we are fighting alongside our fellow New Yorkers in a historic Mass Bail Out to free every woman and young person who cannot afford their bail from the island.

People need to understand the urgency of this action. Women who cross that bridge to Rikers are deemed property—subjected to the whims of those who are given carte blanche to strip them of their humanity and purposefully humiliate them. In the eyes of the city and the state, we are not worthy of respect, dignity or safety.

A sign marking the approach to the Queens side of the bridge that leads to Rikers. (Matt Green / Creative Commons)

Women detained at Rikers are not safe.

According to a DOJ report, staff sexually victimizes at least 50 of the 800 women housed at the Rikers women’s facility known as Rosie’s, at any given time—although as many as 98 percent of all sexual assault incidents go unreported. A New York magazine exposé revealed that corrections officers (COs) persistently and repeatedly sexually assault women; reports of rape, bribery and retribution expose a culture of violence that often goes unspoken. A reported 86 percent of women who have spent time in jail have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives and represent 67 percent of the victims of staff-on-detainee sexual violence. Seventy-seven percent are victims of intimate partner violence.

“You might hear of women having ‘consensual’ sex with COs, but there’s no consent in jail—just power,” said T. Evans, who was incarcerated in Rosie’s for two years. “They can write you tickets, send you to solitary, block you from commissary. They like to play games with the phones; they’ll change your pin so when you go to call your family you can’t. They can just not call you an escort so you sit waiting for two hours and miss clinic, church, visits… They’ll lock down the dorms and make you just sit forever or not let you go to the yard. I remember one time they said there was no toilet tissue in the whole building, to just use rags. When the majority of the COs are male, it’s kind of fair game, you have no control.”

LGBTQI/GNC people are also severely impacted. Due to racism, homelessness and law enforcement bias, LGBTQI/GNC people of color are over-represented in the carceral system and likelier to endure harsher conditions while incarcerated, such as being subjected to solitary confinement. Trans women have been severely mistreated on Rikers; nationwide, 34 percent of incarcerated trans people will experience at least one incident of sexual violence—more than eight times the rate for detainees overall.

Women visiting Rikers are not safe.

When the NYC Jails Action Coalition revealed that, as of November 2017, at least 45 women have filed or are in the process of filing lawsuits that accuse the Department of Correction of unlawful strip searches, most of them at Rikers, families of incarcerated loved ones expressed their own stories of abuse. These reports and complaints recently filed with the DOC expose something we have long known: Rikers has a culture of violence which subjects women to severe violations.

“When I would visit my son,” recalled Anna Pastoressa, a member of #CLOSErikers, “I was inappropriately searched and touched by guards, intentionally humiliated in front of other people and fully aware that other visitors were enduring even worse.”

Women working at Rikers are not safe.

Women COs and staff members have also reported the culture of sexual and physical abuse. Many of them have experienced the toxic, male-dominant culture in which workers are forced to trade sex for job opportunities while they are subjected to pervasive abuse by male detainees and COs.

Mayor De Blasio has made efforts to invest money in and increase services at Rikers—but jails and prisons function to punish and isolate, not rehabilitate, and his efforts don’t acknowledge the root of this problem. Women now are calling for the closure of all ten Rikers facilities, including Rosie’s, and they’re demanding action that moves the system toward real justice.

Incarcerated women need mental health services, support for drug recovery and safety from violent households. The DOC cannot provide these services. Women suffering from mental health conditions or anyone with drug-related charges should not be incarcerated. Medical, mental health and accessible evidence-based public health interventions, including prenatal and maternity care and gender-affirming treatment, must happen outside the system and in our communities.

It’s time to close Rikers and build communities.

Marilyn Reyes-Scales is a Civil Rights & Users Union leader with VOCAL-NY. 

DeAnna Hoskins is President/CEO of JustLeadershipUSA.

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