National News

Offering Jailed Women More Visits and Help Toward a Better Life

Posted January 31, 2018 9:58 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Building on efforts to reduce the jail population at Rikers Island, Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce on Thursday a $6 million plan intended to help rehabilitate female inmates, and lessen the chance that they return.

The proposal, which was created and will be overseen by Chirlane McCray, the mayor’s wife, calls for improving the frequency and quality of family visits for women at Rikers, and broadening mental health and transitional career counseling.

“We know that the children of people who are incarcerated are more likely to be incarcerated themselves,” McCray said, adding that if the “bond between mother and child is broken or damaged, it has lifelong consequences.”

The initiative, part of the mayor’s preliminary budget, will expand the Children of Incarcerated Parents Program to allow weekly visits for children involved with child welfare services as well as create a position at the Department of Correction to coordinate visits at the women’s jail.

A 2011 study from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that even a single visit could reduce recidivism by 13 to 25 percent.

McCray said the idea for the initiative came after she hosted two baby showers on Rikers Island as part of an effort to support pregnant mothers around the city. She said the events on Rikers were different in that the interactions between the women and their children were not as warm. Some children visiting their parents looked withdrawn.

“As a mother it felt so wrong. I cried the last time I went,” said McCray who has two children. “I said, ‘We have to do something.'”

Jennifer Majoy, a former Rikers inmate, recalled how the 21 days she spent at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers last year would have been more tolerable had her parents and daughter been able to visit.

But Majoy, now 34, told her parents not to bother bringing her daughter after a friend waited an hour before being turned away while trying to bring underwear, pajamas and slippers.

“When you are in that situation you need to have family support,” said Majoy, who was charged with drug sale and possession, and is now on probation and working as an intern at a re-entry program for women. “But I did not want my 9-year-old to go through that.”

The effort will build off the ThriveNYC mental health program that McCray oversees, by increasing the number of counselors for women with a domestic violence history, and creating counseling programs that focus on addressing anxiety and depression. An intensive treatment model will be used in the women’s infirmary to deal with mental health issues.

Women at Rikers will also receive more career mentoring and support as they move into outside employment; receive in-home therapy; help with family court proceedings; and get a help desk to coordinate the services needed to transition from jail.

McCray said the initiative was focused on the specific needs and issues of women in jail.

About 630 women are detained daily on Rikers Island, many for nonviolent offenses. A survey by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Department of Correction found that 80 percent of the women have children in their home, while 50 percent took care of young relatives who are not their children.

In June, de Blasio released a plan to close Rikers in 10 years in favor of borough-based jails. Advocates have pushed for closing the troubled jail sooner than that, citing the violence and the difficulty of visiting inmates. Criminal justice reformers have also argued that women and juveniles should not be held on Rikers Island.

McCray said the hope was that the women’s initiative would help reduce the number of women on Rikers while creating a model that could be used when the borough jails opened.

“When we have jails in the boroughs we don’t want to go back to the old model of how we care for people,” she said.

Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the state of New York who led the independent commission that recommended closing Rikers, praised the initiative but said the city needed to keep its eye on the end goal.

“This accelerator of human misery has to be closed,” Lippman said. “But until it happens, you have to take every step possible to make it a more humane place.”

Claude Millery, who served 25 years for murder and robbery before being released last year, now works as an office assistant at Hour Children, which helps formerly incarcerated women reconnect with their children and families.

Despite recently obtaining her bachelor’s degree in sociology, Millery discovered that finding a job was difficult.

“This job makes me feel like I’m a part of society again,” said Millery, who wants to become an office manager. “I made bad choices. I paid for the choices I made, but now I can come to work every day and make a difference in people’s lives.”