We’re expanding our work with a new Radical Hope Fund! Learn More and Apply!

News From The Field

A Women’s Prison in Chelsea Will Be Transformed

21 November 2016
BY Victoria Law
PUBLISHED IN The Village Voice

Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on New York City and Bayview, on West 20th Street less than one block from the Hudson River, was in danger of flooding. That Monday, prison officials told Pulinario and the other 152 women to pack an overnight bag; they were being evacuated to upstate prisons to wait out the storm. The women assumed that they would return in a few days, but fourteen feet of water flooded into the building, destroying boilers and electrical equipment and necessitating over $600,000 worth of repairs before the prison could become functional again. The following year, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that Bayview would be permanently closed and that the state would soon be seeking bids for the building.

“The last thing I heard about Bayview was that I was never going back there because Trump was going to buy the building,” Pulinario told the Voice.

But the building did not go to the president-elect. In October 2015, New York State awarded a lease of up to 99 years to the Novo Foundation, a private foundation focused on ending violence against women and girls, and the Goren Group, a women-led development firm, to transform the women’s prison into a Women’s Building.

“The Women’s Building is dedicated to liberation, equality, and justice no matter where it’s built,” stated Pamela Shifman, the Novo Foundation’s executive director. To that end, and especially given the history of the building, Novo is including Pulinario and other formerly incarcerated women in the planning process. “These were the voices we had to hear from first,” Shifman explained. “We started from there and worked our way out [to other people].”

Miyoshi Benton of the Women and Justice Project, which works with formerly and currently incarcerated women to end mass incarceration, partnered with Novo to ensure that these women were part of every step of Bayview’s transformation.

“Bayview is a former prison. The women who were demonized and dehumanized should be the ones whose voices are at the forefront,” she said. “It’s a rare occurrence for [incarcerated] women’s voices to be reflected in decisions.”

Pulinario was unaware of the prison’s true fate until this past spring. She was released from prison in 2014 and began rebuilding her life. That included speaking out on behalf of the women she left behind and lobbying lawmakers to pass more stringent legislation against shackling women during childbirth and postpartum recovery. This past spring, she received a phone call from the Women and Justice Project inviting her to a focus group about the fate of Bayview. She walked into a room filled with women she had met during her twenty years behind bars.

Marcie, who asked to be identified only by her first name, is also part of the re-envisioning process. She was incarcerated at Bayview in the 1990s, over a decade before Pulinario arrived. Marcie was transferred from a men’s prison as part of a pilot program to place trans women in women’s prisons. “It was a nightmare,” she told the Voice. Marcie was placed in keeplock, or locked into her room for at least 23 hours a day on the prison’s fifth floor. “They said it was for my safety, but [the isolation] brought more harm to me.”

Three months later, she was allowed to interact with other women. But, fearing violence, Marcie kept her trans identity secret. “When I’d go to shower, I’d bathe in my panties,” she recalled. “There were times I had issues explaining to girls why I didn’t have any sanitary pads because there was always a shortage.”

Other women weren’t the only source of potential violence. In the 1990s, sexual abuse and misconduct were recurring problems. “Everyone knew that COs were having sex with women in there and everyone looked the other way,” Marcie recalled. Two decades later, in 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that Bayview had the highest rate of staff sexual assaults. In 2012, a prison guard repeatedly raped and impregnated a woman, grinning at the cameras that captured his assault.

Marcie was transferred from Bayview in 1996 and was paroled a few years later. She concentrated on rebuilding her life, which included advocacy, and joined the Audre Lorde Project’s TransJustice and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. In May 2016, she was invited to help shape the Women’s Building. Like Pulinario, she’s excited to participate in the new project. For Marcie, her inclusion also indicates the start of a breaking down of the fear and stigma that made her keep her trans identity secret. “The trans community is the most impoverished, the most marginalized,” she said. “We’re never invited to these conversations.”

Construction will begin in 2017, and Novo anticipates the building will open in 2020. While Novo plans what Shifman calls a “significant renovation,” it will keep some aspects of the prison, which is filled with art deco mosaics and even has a pool from its earlier decades as a Seamen’s YMCA (which the prison used to store paper files).

“There is a deep commitment to ensuring that the building has some memorialization and has opportunities for people to learn about the history of oppression women have experienced,” she explained. For instance, Pulinario said, the women want to preserve the keeplock floor as a reminder that, not long ago, women were locked into small cells for 23 hours each day.

And the Women and Justice Project is facilitating monthly meetings with formerly incarcerated women and is planning an inaugural winter event marking both the building’s transformation and women’s organizing for approximately 100 formerly incarcerated women, family members, and advocates. Meanwhile, photographer Annie Leibovitz has an exhibition of portraits she took of women opening in the building on Friday, November 18.

“I never thought I would step foot in this building again,” Pulinario said on a recent November morning, as she walked through the prison’s front door as a free woman for the very first time. “I am in a building where I was once in bondage. Now it’s going to be a building to help women.”