A woman holds a sign at the #WhatAboutHer rally in support for the women being held at Riker's Island, in front of the New York Stock exchange on April 26, 2021 in New York City. The Women's Community Justice Association held a rally calling for better conditions at Rosie's, the women's detention center in Riker's Island, and to bring attention to corporate America's ties to the prison industrial system. (Getty Images)

After years of campaigning by criminal justice activists in New York City, this week the city will begin transferring roughly 230 detainees held at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island to temporary holdings at two state-run prisons. The Rose M. Singer Center—nicknamed Rosie’s—is an all-women’s facility where the majority of cisgender women, trans women, and gender-expansive detainees are held at Rikers, the city’s notorious jail complex. 

The city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) stated that transferring cisgender women and trans detainees at Rikers to facilities Upstate will connect them with better services and will help alleviate Rikers’ staff shortage, but some advocates say it is a temporary fix to the growing crisis at the jails and are pushing to ensure that women and gender-expansive detainees have access to the resources they need after they are moved Upstate. 

Criminal justice advocates have spent years campaigning for the city to close Rosie’s, and those calls for closure grew after reports of overcrowding, staff shortages, and COVID-19 infections amid the pandemic surfaced. The recently reported deaths of 13 Rikers detainees, several of which were suicides, have also revived demands for the jail’s immediate closure. Last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that detainees in the all-women’s facility will be moved temporarily to state prisons. The decision comes weeks after the passage of New York’s Less Is More Act, which enabled the immediate release of 191 detainees at Rikers awaiting hearings on alleged technical parole violations.

“The situation on Rikers Island is grave and complex, and thus requires bold action from all levels of government to deliver change,” Hochul said of the decision to transfer detainees out of Rikers’s women’s facility. “I am proud to announce the state’s agreement with the city to temporarily move the majority of these populations off Rikers and into safer State facilities, and I thank the city for its partnership on this important step.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the women’s jail at Rikers ranks among the top 12 worst jails in the country regarding rates of sexual misconduct by staff. In addition to rampant abuse—in some cases rape—detainees inside Rosie’s face unsanitary housing conditions and lack access to mental health services. But mistreatment under confinement is often worse for trans and gender-nonconforming people. 

“Transgender people are not safe inside prisons, jails, and detention centers. We have statistic after statistic showing high levels of sexual and physical violence [against trans detainees],” said Lynly Egyes, the legal director at Transgender Law Center, which provides legal services and community programs for trans people across the country. Egyes added that incarcerated transgender people often suffer inaccess to health care and gender-affirming care and are subjected to the overuse of solitary confinement.

In 2020, New York City agreed to a $5.9 million settlement with the family of Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a trans woman held at Rosie’s who was found dead in her cell. She died of epileptic seizures inside the jail’s solitary confinement unit after staffers failed to perform regular checkups. Currently, there are 47 people who identify as transgender inside Rosie’s, according to the city’s DOC, which operates Rikers.

The latest statistics released by the Women’s Community Justice Association (WCJA), a nonprofit serving women and gender-nonconforming people impacted by incarceration, shows the majority of detainees at Rikers’ women’s facility have not been convicted of a crime, and the average length detainees are held pre-trial is roughly eight months. Many detainees are mothers and survivors of interpersonal violence. Organizations like WCJA have long pushed for the facility’s closure through its #BeyondRosies campaign, which advocates for alternative-to-incarceration programs and investing in support services for reentry. 

Detainees from the women’s center will be moved temporarily starting this week to two state-run facilities: the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and the Taconic Correctional Facility, both located in Westchester about 40 miles outside of the city. There has been no clear information from the city or state about how long this temporary placement at the state facilities will be. Although the decision has been lauded by advocates, some have pointed out that the local government has no long-term plan for the transferred detainees. 

Further concerns persist about whether detainees moved Upstate will have their immediate needs met. For example, some advocates question the DOC’s ability to provide transportation so detainees who will now be held far outside the city can make their court hearings, given the department’s staff shortages. Dozens of detainees at Rosie’s have signed a petition against the transfer, citing concerns of further isolation from services, resources, and their families after they are moved out of the city.

Instead of placing them in a different prison, the women “could have easily been moved to an alternative-to-incarceration program or to an outpatient program, or even to home arrest,” said Serena Martin-Liguori, the executive director of New Hour for Women and Children Long Island, a group that provides re-entry support services for formerly incarcerated women, including trans women and gender-nonconforming people. She lauded the governor’s decision to move detainees out of Rikers, but emphasized the need for non-carceral solutions.

“We know that [state] prisons are often more equipped to handle the needs of people who are incarcerated,” said Martin-Liguori, who herself was formerly incarcerated. “And yet we know that ultimately no prison or jail is a safe, good space for any woman.”

That notion may be more literal than figurative. A recent report by Columbia University’s Center for Justice suggests New York’s carceral system has become tantamount to the death penalty. The report found 1,278 people have died in the state’s prison system within the last decade—higher than the total people executed in the three centuries that New York had a death penalty (it was abolished in 2007). The findings are based on in-custody data from the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) between 1976 and 2020. Over this period, there were 7,504 total deaths in DOCCS custody.

“An increase in punitive sentencing, repeated parole denials, and keeping older people behind bars for longer periods created a new death penalty in New York State,” the report concluded. However, the report does not include analysis based on gender. A team member involved in the report described plans to request further data from the state, but expressed skepticism that the department’s database would sufficiently capture information related to trans and gender-expansive inmates. 

Concerns remain over the women’s access to proper resources after their transfer, which advocates say they will be monitoring closely. 

“It’s only temporary, so we’re hoping [that’s] something the governor prioritizes, moving these women into treatment facilities and into ATIs [alternative-to-incarceration programs] and into domestic violence supportive and empowerment programs, versus just housing them in a different kind of prison,” Martin-Liguori said. “A prison is still a prison, even if it’s a prison that’s well-run.”

Natasha Ishak is a New York City-based journalist who covers politics, public policy, and social justice issues. Her work has been published by VICE, Fortune, Mic, The Nation, and Harvard's Nieman Lab...