It is rare for a building to exorcise its own ghosts. But that is what is happening at 550 West 20th St., the former site of Bayview Correctional Facility for women.
Today, Gov. Cuomo announced that New York State had awarded the NoVo Foundation the rights to redevelop this former women’s prison and reopen it as The Women’s Building, a new home for leaders and organizations working to ensure that girls and women can live free from violence and discrimination.
It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic transformation. For nearly forty years, until Hurricane Sandy forced its evacuation, Bayview was a notorious place of confinement and pain for the women who lived there. In 2009, the same year that the glittering new High Line Park opened just a few steps away, a federal survey of 167 prisons across the country found that Bayview had the single highest percentage of alleged incidents of inmate sexual abuse by staff. Some 12%of inmates there reported sexual misconduct, five times greater than the national average.
Now we — and by extension, all New Yorkers — have an historic opportunity to reclaim this site of women’s suffering that stands in our own backyard, and transform it into a new home for those working for justice and equality for girls and women everywhere. This former women’s prison will be reborn as a hub of activism and engagement, offering leaders the space, resources, and support they need to drive critical change.
As we work to build The Women’s Building, we will never forget what happened to the women behind Bayview’s walls, or what leads so many women to prison in the first place. The great majority of incarcerated women are poor, and a highly disproportionate number are poor women of color. Three-quarters have been victims of domestic violence as adults, and more than 80% suffered physical or sexual abuse as children. Some 70% struggle with mental health challenges, and many have physical disabilities as well. Most are mothers, and are often their children’s sole caretakers.
The Women’s Building will serve as a home for leaders — many of whom are formerly incarcerated women themselves-to address these challenges and many others that affect girls and women in the United States, and around the world.
For girls’ and womens’ rights organizations, this new home can’t come soon enough. As an activist who has worked in the movement for more than 20 years, I’ve watched over and over again as small nonprofit organizations have struggled simply to maintain their services, keep their lights on, and connect with peer organizations. This new vertical neighborhood (all New Yorkers can follow its progress and share their vision for the building’s future at womensbuildingnyc.org) will help organizations focus on what matters most-their missions-while making it easier to share ideas, collaborate with others, and advance lasting change together.
That’s essential, because the struggle for gender equality is far from finished. Today, one in three women around the globe will be beaten, raped, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Here in the United States, women on average earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That gap is even worse for women of color, with Latinas earning just 54 cents for every dollar earned by white men. And while we hear a lot about glass ceilings, far too many women struggle every day on a sticky floor, trapped in minimum-wage, dead-end jobs that leave them without the means to care for themselves or their children. At the same time, girls in the U.S. are increasingly subjected to a “sexual abuse to prison pipeline,” with more than 80% of girls in some states’ juvenile detention centers having suffered sexual or physical abuse before they were incarcerated.
Almost ten years ago, Jennifer and Peter Buffett created the NoVo Foundation to foster a transformation from a world of domination and exploitation to one of collaboration and partnership. By building a new hub for women’s equality out of the confining old cells of Bayview, we hope we can move a step closer to achieving that vision, while offering all New Yorkers a chance for renewed commitment, progress, and pride.
Shifman is the executive director of the NoVo Foundation