Over the last several weeks, some big-name feminist activists have called for New York City to convert a defunct Harlem jail into a “feminist” women’s prison.
In a letter to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul last month, none other than Gloria Steinem called for the former Lincoln Correctional Facility to be remade as a feminist prison: “Women and gender-expansive [people] deserve safety, dignity and justice, and New York City can deliver with a Women’s Center for Justice at Lincoln.”
Steinem added, “It would make us all proud to know that New York could set a precedent for decarceration.”
Efforts to convert Lincoln into a bizarre feminist dream prison have gained support from prominent advocates—including the progressive Columbia Justice Lab—and several testified at a city council meeting last week. At the meeting, two senior fellows at the Columbia Justice Lab, a board chair at the Legal Aid Society and a former director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, among others, all voiced support for Lincoln to be “transformed into a Women’s Center for Justice,” operated by “nonprofits using a model that puts women and [transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and intersex] people on paths to healthy, safe and stable lives.”
There is, of course, another side to this argument. Anti-carceral feminists are protesting the Columbia Justice Lab and the movement to build a Women’s Center for Justice. They argue that building new prisons and expanding the prison industrial complex—the inherently racist system through which the government and private sector profit off of locking up marginalized people—will only further harm women and trans people, particularly those from low-income communities of color.
Claims that a prison can be feminist should also raise eyebrows in a post-Roe America, where criminal charges for pregnancy outcomes and abortion have tripled in recent years, even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe.
In a social media campaign, Survived and Punished New York, which advocates for prison abolition and organizes to support incarcerated sexual violence survivors, stated: “No institution that deprives people of their freedom, severs family and community ties, and produces the violent power relations characteristic of carceral spaces can ever be called humane.”
Survived and Punished New York specifically called for the Columbia Justice Lab to either revoke its support for building the Women’s Center for Justice, “OR return the $5 million it received from the Mellon Foundation for abolition” and instead “redistribute it to community-led projects that support the wellbeing of Black, trans, and poor New Yorkers.”
Women are the fastest-growing demographic of the U.S. prison population; in the last 40 years, the population of incarcerated women has grown 700%. Research has shown this sharp increase is aided by the sexual assault-to-prison pipeline, through which trauma, economic impacts, and other consequences of sexual violence increase victims’ likelihood of being incarcerated. It’s currently estimated 90% of incarcerated women are survivors of sexual assault—as Survived and Punished notes, many are sex workers, and many are victims of abuse who are incarcerated for self-defense against their abusers.
Supporters of the Women’s Center for Justice prison in Harlem emphasize that this facility would be inclusive of trans and non-binary people is important, considering the long history of mistreatment, misgendering, and violence that trans and non-binary incarcerated people have faced in prisons. (However, LGBTQ people and particularly trans people of color are disproportionately incarcerated.)
The campaign against the Women’s Center for Justice is: “If they build it, they will fill it.” In other words, building more prisons means criminalizing and incarcerating more people, which requires diverting even more funding that could have been invested in non-carceral resources for women and trans people—mental health care, housing, and other supports that might have prevented a crime from being committed in the first place.
Feminist organizing for the Women’s Center for Justice is hardly the first time criminal justice reformers have unveiled supposedly more humane forms of prison, like house arrest and electronic monitoring. In their 2020 book Prison By Any Other Name, Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law note that all of these ideas raise fundamental questions about the prison system as a whole: “What does it mean to reform—to improve—a system that, at its core, relies on captivity and control? What are the dangers of perfecting a system that was designed to target marginalized people?”
As long as prisons exist, incarcerated trans and non-binary people’s gender identities should be respected, and all incarcerated people should have safe, healthy living conditions. Nonetheless, anti-carceral feminists argue that a jail can never be feminist, and by targeting marginalized communities and swallowing up funding for essential public resources, the prison system itself is at odds with feminist liberation.