OPINION: Becoming a parent: Rikers Island vs. maximum security prison
I am a mother, a Brooklyn resident, criminal justice advocate and former resident of Rikers Island. I currently live with my daughter a couple blocks away from the proposed Brooklyn community jail site. After being incarcerated on Rikers Island, I fully support closing the jail and building smaller, safer, and more humane borough-based facilities.
If my incarceration experience had a title, it would be named after “The Tale of Two Cities,” but with a much different plot. I was confined in both Rikers Island and in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Rikers is a city jail and Bedford is a maximum-security state prison. Yet every day I thank God for the programs and treatment that exist at Bedford Hills, and I hope Rikers closes.
Rikers Island is a dark, cold, destructive and dehumanizing place. It dragged me down to one of the lowest points in my life mentally, emotionally and physically. I found out I was two weeks pregnant at intake. For the first five to six months, I had to share a cell, which meant struggling with nausea, heartburn, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, leg cramps and everything else associated with pregnancy in a tiny space with an open toilet — in front of a stranger.
Yet, it was the people I was incarcerated with — not the staff — who cared for me the most. The women who were detained with me brought me food when the guards refused to allow me to eat, sometimes for days at a time. Food is a source of control. I was told they “were going to break me,” because they didn’t like the way I spoke. I was “too tough for a pregnant lady,” whatever that means.
Like many women, I was subjected to inappropriate physical behavior. Rikers has too many blind spots not captured on any camera, or only filmed on one camera at one angle. There is also inadequate real-time monitoring of the footage, which should be handled by an external agency.
But finally, one day, after suffering on Rikers for months, I was transferred to Bedford Hills. There, the Nursery Program was a place with windows streaming in sunlight, walls painted in bright colors with characters from children’s books, rooms filled with toys, sounds of people singing friendly songs, and, most importantly, staff that cared about the well-being of me and my child.
I could finally breathe again. I was in a place where I could actually see myself becoming a parent. The environment there felt like a real community. My relationship with my daughter is, without a doubt, stronger as a result. I never had to miss a day of her life thanks to that program, and without that first 18 months, I don’t know if our bond would’ve been as strong. I am forever grateful that I was able to be with her.
I am writing today to ask all Brooklynites — and all New Yorkers — to please support the plan to close Rikers Island. The City Council will vote on the issue on Oct. 17. It’s important that your voice be heard.
While we work on making sure fewer and fewer people go to jail and prison in the first place, we also have to think about the experience people have if they do. And I know we can do much better than Rikers, because I experienced it at Bedford.
No one should have to be subjected to the way we incarcerate people on Rikers Island. We are all human, after all.
Gina Williams now works as a bookkeeper at The Fortune Society. She is a member of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy Collective.
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