An Evening in Support of the Beyond Rosie's Campaign
September 8, 2019 JIE Updates
By Kiana Taghavi
Upon arriving, attendees at the Women’s Community Justice Association’s Call-to-Action were greeted with a request to sign a postcard asking Governor Cuomo to support the Beyond Rosie’s 2020 Campaign.
The campaign, organized by the Women’s Community Justice Association, was launched as a response to Mayor de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers. At the current women’s facility on the island, the Rose M. Singer Center (“Rosie’s”), over 85% of women have experienced sexual violence, and close to 75% have a mental health diagnosis, but de Blasio’s plan lacks any specific information about where the incarcerated women would be held in the future.
The aim of the Beyond Rosie’s campaign is to secure a stand-alone centralized and service-enriched facility in Manhattan for the people who identify as women currently being held at Rikers. Given the high rates of trauma at Rosie’s, the Women’s Community Justice Association seeks a trauma-informed facility that acknowledges the needs of women and empowers them, instead of dismissing them.
Rabbi Suzzane Singer, Rose M. Singer’s granddaughter, flew from California to introduce the Call-to-Action. She shared how her grandmother was a powerful activist, dedicating her life to advancing the concerns of women.
As a rabbi, Ms. Singer introduced a piece of Rabbinical literature—a text by Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher—regarding cities of refuge. The sages of ancient cities valued the dignity of their criminals, she argued, asking why our contemporary jails set individuals up for future failure.
Ms. Singer underscored the interconnectedness of for-profit corporations and mass incarceration. By way of example, she explained how some phone companies charge inmates as much as $25 for a 15-minute phone conversation. She expressed full support for the effort to close down Rosie’s, while also emphasizing the importance of national endeavors to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and to fund diversion programs.
City Council Member Helen Rosenthal spoke next, sharing her goal of reimagining the justice system for women as an institution where no one is thrown into solitary confinement. Following the news of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who was placed in solitary and found dead in her cell at Rikers Island earlier this summer, Council Member Rosenthal initiated an investigation into her death.
Closing Rikers is now within our reach, she argued, especially as a potential replacement facility has been found at the Lincoln Correctional Facility in Manhattan. She closed by reminding the attendees that change in the justice system will only happen if we raise our voices now.
The night ended with an intimate panel about the lived experiences of women in prison, moderated by Columbia’s own Cheryl Wilkins. To address the jarring reality that women’s experiences in the criminal justice system are the least discussed, Wilkins organized a panel of four women: Rona SugarLove from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Lovestar Rogers from Columbia’s Center for Justice, Andrea Arnold, an entrepreneur and bishop, and Carole Eady from the Women’s Community Justice Association.
Those panelists who were formerly incarcerated closed by sharing stories of their time behind bars and offering visions of how the justice system might change for the better. Lovestar argued, “These [carceral] systems are keeping us stagnated. It is imperative that we have separate facilities for women. We should be using social workers in our justice system, as inmates have trauma they don’t know how to deal with.”
Carole closed the night of candid conversations by saying, “There are no cookie-cutter solutions to eradicating the abuses within the criminal justice system. We have to individualize our solutions.”
Kiana Taghavi is a junior at Columbia University, studying Political Science and French. She is passionate about criminal justice reform, and hopes to pursue a career in public interest law, fighting for the needs and rights of all members in our communities.
Photo by Kiana Taghavi.