The Brooklyn sanctuary where nuns help women transition from Rikers

At Providence House, neither a halfway house nor a shelter: a "breath of fresh air."

July 9, 2019 Phineas Rueckert
Providence House. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert
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When LT applied for transitional housing after eight months on Rikers Island, she probably didn’t expect the answer she got.

“Oh! It’s nuns?” LT remembers asking the first time she heard about Providence House.

She took it as a sign. LT, 34, had been through a troubled patch in her life.

In 2016, she lost her apartment to a fire. Unable to find a spot in a shelter, she ended up in the streets, where, she said, she was physically assaulted. She stopped taking her medication for Schizoaffective disorder. She began having delusions in which she believed unknown people were after her. In July 2018, in the midst of one of those delusions, she attacked a woman outside of a train station, running away with the woman’s purse.

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She was charged with robbery and assault and sent to Rikers.

“I was really traumatized, and I didn’t understand the depths of that trauma,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle on a recent Friday, sitting on a couch in her temporary home, which she shares with 12 other formerly-incarcerated women and three nuns. “When I saw the police video, I began to cry.”

A safe space

Through an Alternatives to Detention program, LT, who grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, was offered a way to avoid prison time. While on Rikers awaiting trial, she applied for transitional housing and was placed in Providence House, a former convent in Prospect Lefferts Gardens that helps women affected by the criminal justice system transition out of incarceration and back into society.

Founded in 1979, Providence House initially housed 14 state parolees alongside three Catholic sisters. For the past few years, though, the program has shifted its focus to women who have spent time at Rikers.

For these women, the program can be a lifeline — a safe and welcoming environment where they can find something that, at least for many, rarely existed in their lives, and the lack of which often drove them persistently back into the criminal justice system: stability.

According to a 2018 study from the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), housing instability is one of the biggest factors that contributes to the “revolving door” of incarceration, and women — especially women of color — are disproportionately affected. Nearly 300 in 10,000 formerly-incarcerated women experienced homelessness, a rate that’s about 15 times higher than that of the general population, according to the latest available statistics cited in the PPI report, which date back to 2008.

Lacking access to stable housing can box formerly-incarcerated women out of healthcare systems, employment opportunities and educational programs, ultimately pushing them back into the carceral system, the study found. And in cities like New York, which is experiencing twin crises of affordability and homelessness, stable housing can be hard to come by.

Providence House, with just 14 beds, is by no means a solution to the crisis — but for the women who live there, it can make a big difference.

“This isn’t a halfway house. This isn’t a shelter,” said T, a current resident who spent six months at Rikers. “It was like a breath of fresh air.”

T, a resident at Providence House. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert
T, a resident at Providence House. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

T, who preferred not to give her full name or share the details of her legal situation, said that her life before Rikers was “tumultuous.” In her time at Rikers, she was forced to wear a spit mask and forearm restraints because she refused to move or go outside during break hours.

“They did things to me that were illegal,” she said. “The best way to keep myself safe was to put myself in harm’s way.”

Even at Providence House, T said, “there are stressors” that remind her of being in an institutionalized setting.

Residents, for example, have a 10:00 p.m. curfew, and Providence House reports on their progress to their respective ATD programs. Many women still have to appear in court to follow through on ongoing cases.

Unlike at many shelters, though, residents at Providence House have their own rooms and keys. During the day, residents are free to come and go as they please, provided they make it to their appointments. The house doesn’t have “rules,” but rather “expectations.” The management hopes that by changing the nomenclature of these systems and being open to dialogue with the women on things like extending curfew that they will feel more comfortable finding stability.

“Many of our women have experienced shelters, been involved in systems before,” said Sherrie Waller, who directs the Women’s Community Justice Project at Providence House. “We try to be different in that way and we try to counter [those systems].”

From convent to community

From the street, the former convent looks like any other apartment building in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood. Only a small cross engraving on the exterior of the third floor gives away its religious underpinnings.

Women enter the house through a bright red door, which is monitored 24/7 by staff. To the left, after the entryway, sits a long, wooden table where residents share common meals. The walls are papered with light blue patterns and grandiose chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Upstairs, a light-filled TV room serves as the location for weekly community meetings.

A communal space in Providence House. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert
A communal space in Providence House. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

The neighborhood, according to Sister Pat Mahoney, who is one of three nuns currently living at the house, has been and remains highly Catholic. On one side of Providence House is a Catholic church, on the other a private Catholic school.

“If you look around, there’s churches everywhere,” she said.

Mahoney has been a nun for 57 years. During the day she works construction in Brentwood, Long Island, her hometown.

Throughout her life, Mahoney — everyone calls her Sister Pat — has worked a number of jobs. She was a teacher in Long Island and a chaplain at Rikers. She began to work with formerly incarcerated women alongside Sister Elaine Roulet, the former director of the Children’s Center at Bedford Hills Correctional Center, in the 1980s. It was Roulet who introduced her to Providence House, while the two of them worked together at Bedford Hills.

“I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of amazing things in my ministry,” she said. “I wanted to work with the unchurched, with those at the margins.”

Sister Pat moved into Providence House 25 years ago, and has remained a consistent presence in the house since. Along with the other nuns, she shares meals, conversations and prayers with the women who cycle in and out of the program. Although religiosity is not a prerequisite for acceptance into the program, she said, many women — who often come from religious backgrounds in black and Latinx communities of color ― find solace in faith.

“They’re comforted by it,” she said. “It comes easily. We pray together, but we don’t impose that on them.

A bedroom at Providence House. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert
A bedroom at Providence House. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

As the program has been formalized, the nuns have taken a backseat in the day-to-day management of the house, serving more so as a guiding voice for the women than an operational team. For LT, who grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, the simple proximity to Catholic nuns gives her a sense of safety.

“When I have a question, who better to ask than the Sisters?” she said.

Out of the system

In the past five years, the program has shifted from being run primarily by the sisters to being run through an initiative funded by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice called the Women’s Justice Program.

Providence House’s director, Danielle Minelli Pagnotta, is a member of the Women’s Community Justice Association, which has called for closing down the Rose M. Singer Center, the women-only jail at Rikers Island known more colloquially as Rosie’s, by 2020. WCJA is part of the BEYOND Rosie’s campaign, which aims to reapportion the women currently housed there — fewer than 500 — to community-based settings and commit to reducing the population of women in detention to between 100 and 150.

But doing this will be easier said than done. According to a 2018 report from the Vera Institute, women held at Rikers were admitted on felony charges at a higher rate than at other jails, making their release from the criminal justice system much more challenging. The same report found that women are also more likely than men to cycle multiple times through the system and to experience mental health issues, necessitating a more holistic approach to keeping them out of jail.

Providence House. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert
Providence House. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

“Putting housing out there as an option alone is not going to change the attitude of the courts,” said Insha Rahman, a member of the leadership team at Vera. Diversion that starts at arraignment, programming specifically for women dealing with trauma, and early screening programs aimed at ensuring a speedy release for women at Rikers, among other things, Rahman said, would be critical in the campaign to close Rosie’s by the end of next year.

The city has said that it plans to close Rikers by 2026 by reducing the citywide prison population to 4,000 (from around 7,500 currently) and moving remaining inmates to four borough-based jails. In the city’s plan, the women currently incarcerated at Rosie’s would be moved to the jail planned for Kew Gardens, in Queens. The WCJA, for its part, wants the city to commit to a Manhattan-based, women-only detention facility with 100-150 beds and 16-bed nursery, as well as increased funding for ATI, diversion and mental health programs.

Providing stable transitional housing, Rahman said, is just one way to prevent women from re-entering the system, but can serve as a critical buffer.

“We know that many women who are going into the system didn’t have stable housing before they went in and that housing is one of the biggest barriers to coming out and staying out,” she said. “For many women, the underlying reason why they’re in the system is because of a male figure in their life, and that’s who they’re dependent on. If you don’t have somewhere to go that is safe and stable, that’s what you default to.”

When it comes to preventing recidivism, Providence House can point to a successful track record: fewer than 5 percent of women who go through the program end up incarcerated within a year, according to their website. Residents have a 100 percent track record of making their court dates.

The program has helped LT get back on her feet. She was recently accepted to a peer training program called Howie the Harp, which helps place women with a history of mental health issues in jobs and internships. She is looking for her own apartment, and hopes to take her 2-year-old out of foster care.

When asked if things were better now that she had been in Providence House for almost four months, she was unequivocal. “There’s not even a word for it,” she said.

Correction (July 11) — A previous version of this article misnamed the Women’s Community Justice Project. It has been updated with the correct name. The Eagle regrets this error. 

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