From Rikers to Bedford Hills (And Back)
A decision to transfer women and transgender detainees from Rikers Island to Westchester lockups caused a myriad of issues for everyone involved — only for the majority to be sent back months later.
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Last fall, Governor Kathy Hochul, in partnership with former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, announced that approximately 230 women and transgender individuals currently detained on Rikers Island would be temporarily transferred to two state-run facilities in suburban Westchester County: Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facility.
The Oct. 13 decision — which was touted as one way to alleviate New York City’s most notorious jail complex’s staffing shortages from spiraling further out of control — was quickly opposed by inmates themselves, as well as public defenders, women’s justice advocates, and correctional oversight watchdogs.
In a petition signed by 68 individuals at the Rose M. Singer Center — the facility where the majority of cisgender women, trans women, and gender-expansive detainees are held on Rikers — they vehemently slammed Hochul’s plan, calling it a political maneuver that stripped pre-trial detainees of their due process by moving them to a state-run facility for post-sentenced individuals.
“How dare the governor sacrifice women for a photo op/headline?! This false ‘state of emergency’ in no way justifies creating new obstacles to justice for detained women,” the petition reads. “We are unequivocally opposed to this edict, and we will not be silent.”
“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,” the petition continues. “A tolerable solution is to negotiate release conditions, not to further bury chronic violations of due process.”
Despite pushback from impacted detainees and their outside advocates, the plan was put into motion on Oct. 18, transferring 10 to 20 individuals from Rikers at a time.
But just months later, the NYC Department of Correction (DOC) announced they would be transferring 83 detainees back to Rikers — of 118 individuals who were ultimately brought to Bedford Hills, just over half of Hochul’s initially-announced plan.
While Hochul promised that all transferees would receive the same medical, therapeutic, and vocational services offered at Rikers when moved to Westchester lockups, detainees’ legal teams and advocacy organizations both painted a different picture of what was happening on the ground during the transfers.
No time to prepare
Jillian Modzeleski, an attorney who heads the Women’s Defense Project — an interdisciplinary team of attorneys and social workers who serve cisgender and transgender women who have experienced a history of violence — at Brooklyn Defender Services said Hochul’s initial decision to move detainees came as a surprise.
In fact, many lawyers heard it first from their clients that they were being transferred.
“We weren’t notified or given any better information than anyone else,” Modzeleski explains, sharing the specific challenges these transfers have created for lawyers, particularly at Bedford Hills.
Not only were the transfers destabilizing for the detainees, as they were picked up and moved somewhere further away from their families, legal teams, and support networks, but the move also significantly encumbered the attorney-client relationship.
“When the transfers first went into place, Bedford did not have the video capability set up for us to have regular meetings with our clients,” Modzeleski says.
And when they did set up the video capability, Modzeleski says clients were often put in locations that were not confidential.
“They were in large rooms, doors were open, and people were walking back and forth outside of where clients were sitting,” Modzeleski highlights. “So having any sort of productive conversation about their case was essentially impossible because there was no confidentiality whatsoever.”
Modzeleski says scheduling video conferences were increasingly difficult as well, and a COVID outbreak in the facility led to many clients being unable to speak with their lawyers because they were in isolation between Dec. 1 and Jan. 15.
“I scheduled several meetings with clients that were then canceled, the client wasn’t produced to, or the client was produced very late,” Modzeleski explains, highlighting because meeting run times are typically only 30 minutes, if a client is produced late, it’s difficult to make any sort of productive movement on a client’s case because lost time cannot be made up.
Not only were clients not always produced to their virtual meetings with legal teams, but Modzeleski highlighted that many were also not being produced to their court dates, which significantly slowed down the progression of their cases.
When asked specifically about the lack of privacy for attorney-client conversations and missed court dates, the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) said in a statement to Examiner+ that “all legal calls were held in private rooms and any missed court dates were the result of incarcerated individuals being quarantined.”
According to DOCCS, tele-video capacity was expanded at Bedford Hills and they worked with the Office of Court Administration to use their existing equipment for video court appearances.
However, Modzeleski noted that New York City courts utilize Microsoft Teams whereas Bedford operates through WebEx, a clear disconnect.
“I think that demonstrates how poorly [the transfer] was planned out,” Modzeleski says. “You have clients who are incarcerated, and they don’t even have the application necessary to appear in court.”
Modzeleski represents women who have a history of trauma that has, either directly or indirectly, led to their involvement in the criminal justice system. On Rikers, many of Modzeleski’s clients were engaging in counseling and therapy provided by outside service providers — crucial to their mental health and healing.
But once they were moved to Bedford, these services were cut off completely. Services, which, if completed successfully, can often lend themselves to a resolution of an individual’s case that does not involve incarceration.
“Once they got into Bedford, there wasn’t an abundance of programs or services that they could sign up for and engage in,” Modzeleski says. “In fact, the services they were receiving prior to the transfer weren’t even able to follow them.”
Continuity in services that were promised by Gov. Hochul, Modzeleski says, was not delivered to her clients.
From one troubled facility to another
Even before the transfers, conditions at Bedford Hills were of significant concern to outside oversight organizations, including the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), the only independent organization with authority under state law to monitor prisons and report findings out to the legislature and broader public.
In 2020, CANY released “It Reminds Us How We Got Here: (Re) Producing Abuse, Neglect, and Trauma in New York’s Prisons for Women,” a report that shed light on what was occurring inside Bedford Hills.
The report detailed that among surveyed inmates, 74 percent of 110 respondents said they had witnessed some form of violence or abuse by staff, including physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, while 53 percent reported experiencing these acts of violence themselves.
Because many of those incarcerated at Bedford Hills have a history of trauma, many shared that the abuse of power from officers and security staff was retraumatizing, reminding them of their own abusers.
“Officers will scream, yell at us not knowing and understanding that 90 percent of inmates in Bedford Hills have been raped, abused, traumatized by men in our lifetime before,” one survey respondent said.
Further, respondents reported being harassed, humiliated, threatened, intimidated, and verbally degraded by correctional officers, reporting concerns about excessive use of force and threats of force.
“Respondents have been ‘hit,’ ‘beat up,’ ‘slammed,’ ‘punched,’ ‘stomped out,’ and threatened with force by correctional officers,” the report details.
Respondents also reported sexual misconduct by prison staff, including sexual assault and harassment, rape, and voyeurism — including male officers watching incarcerated individuals while they shower and use the toilet.
When asked about the report’s findings, DOCCS said it has zero tolerance for any such misconduct, and the Department’s internal investigations unit, the Office of Special Investigations, thoroughly and aggressively investigates all cases and complaints through its five divisions, including an Internal Affairs Division and Sex Crimes Division.
“While the following actions were not taken in direct response to the aforementioned report, in recent years the Department has increased training of all staff on de-escalation techniques, implicit bias, trauma-informed care, and dispute resolution. Additionally, DOCCS has invested and will continue to invest millions of dollars into fixed camera systems and body-worn cameras,” the DOCCS statement said.
Because there were already outstanding concerns that CANY had regarding the conditions at Bedford Hills, staff conducted two monitoring visits in November and December 2021 after the transfers had been initiated.
“For [the November] visit specifically, the scope was taking a look objectively at the conditions of confinement for those who had been transferred but also for the population already incarcerated at Bedford Hills,” Sumeet Sharma, Director of Monitoring and Advocacy at CANY, said.
During the November monitoring visit, staff from CANY were at the facility from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
The visit included meeting with the prison’s executive team, staff unions, the inmate liaison committee, going to the Therapeutic Behavior Unit (TBU) and Special Housing Unit (SHU), meeting with mental and medical health staff, seeing the intermediate care program, and touring the housing areas, speaking with transferred and non-transferred inmates there — according to an agenda shared with Examiner+.
“There had already been a limited amount of programming offered [at Bedford], and with the additional workload that was added to the program staff, medical staff, dental staff [due to the transfers and COVID], everyone in the prison, regardless of whether they had been transferred from Rikers, were collectively not receiving the same level of access to the services and programming that they were previously being offered,” Sharma says.
At the time of CANY’s visit, roughly 40 percent of program staff positions at Bedford Hills were not filled, which Sharma says, may best illuminate how ill-equipped the facility was to handle the transfer, even before it was initiated.
“November and December 2021 represented the height of the spread of the Omicron variant globally, and within our correctional facilities,” DOCCS countered in its statement. “While staffing was impacted by the ongoing pandemic, it did not represent a 40-percent deficiency.”
DOCCS maintains that, during the time of CANY’s visits, a full range of programming was offered to individuals transferred from Rikers, but many did not wish to participate and declined.
Because Rikers detainees are pre-trial, Sharma said many inmates at Bedford Hills — on both sides — expressed a level of fear or mistrust between people who had already been sentenced to a bed in the state prison and those awaiting their time in court.
“There seemed to be a different calculus as far as someone who is incarcerated post-sentencing versus someone who is pre-sentenced still fighting their case,” Sharma says. “I think on both ends, they were feeling like their unique situation was not being effectively addressed or thought about by staff.”
By adding an additional population to Bedford Hills, it took away from the existing population’s ability to have their needs met by prison and program staff, which were already strained due to the pandemic. And by transferring a population from Rikers — many of whom were receiving highly-specialized care there — Bedford wasn’t able to provide that consistency.
When Sharon White-Harrigan, Executive Director of Women’s Community Justice Association (WCJA), found out about the transfers, she initially supported the decision, largely in part to it being an actionable step toward the justice reform organization’s #BEYONDrosies campaign, which demands the permanent closure of the Rose M. Singer Center, the safe release of women and gender-expansive people to their communities through alternatives to incarceration and supervised release, and a permanent, NYC-based facility that is accessible and humane for the small population who will remain in jail.
“Governor Hochul has made this a historic day for the justice-impacted women who have been leading the #BEYONDrosies movement to close Rose M. Singer for years,” White-Harrigan said in a press release shortly after Gov. Hochul’s announcement.
In November, White-Harrigan, who herself was formerly incarcerated first at Rikers and then at Bedford Hills, penned an op-ed in City Limits in November, titled “Transferring Women and Trans NYers From Rikers to Prison is Not the Solution,” which highlighted that the real long-term solution would be to divert women and gender-expansive people to trauma-informed, community-based alternatives to incarceration.
“[The transfer] wasn’t a great idea, it wasn’t even a solution, but it was an opening,” White-Harrigan says. “It highlighted the women who are always underrepresented, underacknowledged, and overlooked.”
While the transfers were not a tangible step toward decarceration, White-Harrigan says the move did draw attention to the bigger issue, which WCJA consistently seeks to highlight: the harmful, retraumatizing conditions women and gender-expansive individuals face while in custody — whether in a city- or state-run facility.
“Whether it’s Rikers or Bedford, people come with packaged trauma, compounded trauma, historical trauma, intergenerational trauma, acute trauma, chronic trauma, big trauma, little trauma, and it’s not dealt with,” White-Harrigan says. “Everybody operates in these harsh punitive ways, and it has not served us well at all.”
Back to Rikers — and square one
On Jan. 31, it was announced by the DOC that approximately 83 detainees of the 118 ultimately brought to Bedford Hills would be transferred back to the five boroughs, barring those who had since been sentenced in court to state custody. Transfers back to the city began in early February.
According to jailhouse sources, the transfers did little to improve operations on Rikers. And some advocates believed the initial decision sacrificed pre-trial detainees for something to say at a press conference.
“I feel like it was a whole publicity stunt [by the DOC],” Benny Boscio Jr., Union President of the Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association, told the New York Post. “The reality is the Rose M. Singer Center is probably one of the better run jails on the island.”
Still, Rosie’s ranks among the top 12 worst jails in the country according to the U.S. Department of Justice, with mistreatment under confinement often worse for trans and gender-expansive people.
But with 1,000 correctional officers returning to work — many of whom were previously out sick with COVID — the DOC says it gives the struggling jail enough staff necessary to return the transferred detainees.
“Both our employees and people in custody have had to endure so much throughout this pandemic, and while we are by no means out of the woods, having 1,000 of our staff members return to work marks a significant shift in the right direction,” DOC Commissioner Louis Molina said in a statement.
Notwithstanding the transfers, White-Harrigan and her team are continuing to fight to divert justice-impacted individuals — particularly LGBTQ+ people and New Yorkers of color who are disproportionately targeted and incarcerated — to community-based solutions.
Bail reform is a step in the right direction, but for many advocates, it doesn’t go far enough toward rethinking carceral punishment.
So who’s standing in the way? The city, and the state, White-Harrigan says.
“They’re not interested in getting women and gender-expansive people healed,” White-Harrigan says. “Because if they were, then they wouldn’t be bouncing them back and forth like they’re chess pieces.”
Bailey Hosfelt is a full-time reporter at Examiner Media, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ issues and the environment. Originally from Connecticut and raised in West Virginia, the maternal side of their family has roots in Rye. Prior to Examiner, Bailey contributed to City Limits, where they wrote about healthcare and climate change. Bailey graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor's in journalism and currently resides in Brooklyn with their girlfriend and two cats, Lieutenant Governor and Hilma. When they're not reporting, Bailey can be found picking up free books off the street, shooting film photography, and scouring neighborhood thrift stores for the next best find. You can follow Bailey on Twitter at @baileyhosfelt.
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