Rikers Island Transferees Now Held in Maximum Security Prison Where Drinking Water Tastes Like Sewage

Issue 268

Women, trans and nonbinary people are being taken off Rikers only to be moved upstate to bad conditions.

Julia Thomas Dec 20, 2021

Al-Shariyfa Robinson, who has been incarcerated for a 15-to-life sentence at Bedford Hills since 2017, snuck a sample of water out of the Correctional Facility to her visiting mother in September. At that point, the water had tasted non-potable for weeks, and access to water had been spotty for months.

At the facility in Westchester County, the largest New York state prison for women, incarcerated people were faced with contaminated drinking water over the summer. It smelled “like cars, sewage and stuff that I’ve never smelled in water before,” says Joy Powell, a 60-year-old who’s been held in the prison since 2007. “I was throwing up and had diarrhea for like two weeks just from trying to drink the water.”

She also recalls taking ice cold showers from June through mid-October, on top of being housed in facilities where incarcerated people have long reported rampant roaches, rats and mold. Incarcerated people at Bedford Hills also say that proper treatment of COVID-19 and other health issues is not provided, with basic public health precautions being largely ignored by prison staff and guards.

Now, the maximum-security prison is experiencing an influx of women and transgender and non-binary people — all held pre-trial — who are being transferred from Rikers Island. The transfers, which began in October, come after renewed calls to close Rikers and address the increasingly inhumane conditions on the penal colony. Over the past few months, Rikers Island has experienced heightened levels of violence, deteriorating physical conditions and a life-threatening lack of services, all resulting in suicides and suicide attempts.

The move was announced in conjunction with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s long-awaited signature of the Less Is More Act, aimed at reducing the number of people incarcerated at Rikers for minor parole violations.

Why transfer marginalized people in Rikers’ women’s quarters to an out-of-city prison with dangerous conditions rather than address the humanitarian crisis?

However, incarcerated people, organizers and attorneys are raising many concerns about the impacts of moving women and trans and gender non-conforming people who have not yet been sentenced to the state prison system. Advocates say the shift from Rikers to a maximum security facility 44 miles away from the city not only isolates people from their loved ones and creates complications around access to legal support, but also puts individuals into a carceral environment where they are treated as if they have been sentenced.

So far, approximately 100 people, including women and a few trans individuals, have been transferred to Bedford Hills. A total of 232 people are slated to be moved from Rikers to both Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facility, but the process has been plagued by a lack of transparency from city and state officials about exactly how and when people will be moved. Detainees are typically given 48 hours to pack up their personal property and contact their loved ones and legal support before a transfer occurs.

The transfers mark an unprecedented move that “completely flies in the face of … constitutional protection in terms of having access to counsel and innocence until proven guilty,” says Mik Kinkead, a trans staff attorney for the Rikers Civil ReEntry Project at the Legal Aid Society. While visiting hours extend from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the week at Rikers, visiting hours at Bedford Hills end at 3:30 p.m. on weekends, and were temporarily extended to end at 7 p.m. Some attorneys have been successful in video chatting their clients, Kinkead says, but it’s unclear if that access has been granted to loved ones.

People who are transferred are “going to feel like they never actually got a fair chance in court,” Kinkead told The Indy. “They’ve been deprived from their community, from their providers, from their family.”

Trans people and non-citizens have the option to oppose being transferred, and attorneys have been advocating for cis people with medical, legal and other needs to stay in the city. Attorneys who are advocating to oppose a client’s transfer can call or email with a reason not to transfer. But mistakes have been made in terms of people ending up on transfer lists who are not supposed to be there.

“I think we would all rest more easily if we could clearly see our clients’ names on a ‘do not transfer’ list and know they are on there,” Kinkead wrote in an email to The Indy. “So far we just have this reporting and then we monitor to make sure no client accidentally gets on the transfer list.”

Some trans individuals, for reasons related to their safety and status of their trial, have elected to remain at Rikers, while others have chosen to go up to Bedford Hills. Kinkead says people at Rikers have had “wildly different experiences based upon their race and based upon how long they’ve been inside.” Black and/or Latinx trans men have reported being sent to solitary more than white trans men.

Hochul’s decision still exposes a contradiction in the state’s approach to carceral reform: Why transfer marginalized people in Rikers’ women’s quarters to an out-of-city prison with dangerous conditions rather than address the humanitarian crisis in men’s jails, where public defenders say conditions are more severe?

“I feel like I’m suffocating in a COVID cesspool and it’s just not right.”

Advocates say impacted people and the New York City Council-appointed task force on trans, gender non-conforming and non-binary individuals in New York City jails were not consulted prior to the decision. “None of us were present, which is part of why this is such a disaster,” said Kinkead. The transfers place an “enormous burden on the most vulnerable people because they’re not willing to admit that Rikers has been in crisis for such a long period of time.”

Conditions at Bedford Hills are comparable to Rikers, described Powell in a phone call with The Indy. When we last spoke on Dec. 1, Powell described a scene of “chaos” due to the prison’s lack of COVID protocol and quarantine periods for people coming from Rikers.

“I feel like I’m suffocating in a COVID cesspool and it’s just not right,” Powell, who is diabetic, said. “A lot of the women here are very concerned and calling their families, some are even calling lawyers. Not just my unit, but the majority of the entire prison is locked down on a modified schedule because of this.”

After a visit to Bedford Hills, New York State Senator Julia Salazar tweeted Dec. 8 that her time at the prison “confirmed all our worst fears about the impact of the forced transfers of women from Rikers Island jails to Bedford.” That day, according to Salazar, 19 people out of 595 incarcerated people at Bedford Hills, had tested positive for COVID-19.

A trans person who recently arrived from Rikers had just been moved to Powell’s unit and had not yet received test results, after allegedly being exposed to COVID-positive people on the bus from the jail, according to Powell. She noted that Bedford Hills has been inconsistent in their promise to keep people from Rikers in one unit and instead has dispersed detainees throughout the prison’s general population.

Donna Robinson has been in touch with numerous incarcerated people who don’t have family or support systems — “bonus sisters” and “bonus daughters,” she calls them — over her years of advocacy with Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP). Medical care at the facility has consistently been “slim to none,” she told The Indy, adding that she’s consistently heard about nurses and doctors at the facility brushing off incarcerated people’s concerns about their health.

The first person to die of COVID-19 in a New York State prison was Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay, a 61-year-old Black woman who was incarcerated at Bedford Hills for seven years. She had a heart attack and open-heart surgery three months before her death on April 28, 2020, and had been eligible for medical parole even prior to the pandemic. Her story underscores the endemic issue of medical neglect at Bedford Hills, where mental health issues are also routinely pushed to the side, Robinson says.

“I’m afraid for those women who are going to be transferred to those two facilities, what that is going to do to them mentally,” Robinson told The Indy. “They’ve already been traumatized being at Rikers. Now you’re going to send them to another facility, to take that baggage.”

Melania Brown, the sister of Layleen Polanco — a trans woman who died from an epileptic seizure in solitary confinement at Rikers Island in June of 2019 after multiple instances of neglect by Rikers’ jail staff — is calling for people to be released, not transferred. “All they’re doing is moving these humans from one facility where there’s suffering to an even worse one, because now they’re in maximum security where there are people that have committed crimes that are being sentenced,” she told The Indy. “The problem is that they’re not attacking the problem from the root.”

Advocates are demanding city and state officials release people and provide community-based alternatives for those who are being transferred. “We need leadership who begins to really scrutinize,” said Elisa Crespo, executive director of the NEW Pride Agenda, “and think deeply about whether incarceration actually rehabilitates people or actually puts them in a better standing when they’re released.”

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