Ex-Inmates Helping to Transform Prison Into Building for Women and Girls

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Although Bayview was closed in 2012, signs of the women’s prison remain on Sunday.

Photos by Karen Savage

Although Bayview was closed in 2012, signs of the women’s prison remained on Sunday.

NEW YORK — Wearing a New York Mets hat and a denim jacket, Cheryl Wilkins was the perfect hostess. Cracking jokes, she made sure guests — particularly young people — attending a block party in front of the state’s former Bayview Correctional Facility felt welcomed. Wilkins, who was released in 2005 after spending nearly two years incarcerated in the facility, knows what it’s like to be young and not know where to turn.

“I have a brother who died of an overdose when I was 9 years old,” Wilkins said. “I wish I would have had a place where I could unpack some of the things that were happening in my life.”

Now Wilkins is helping to create such a place for future generations.

Last year, the state of New York awarded the NoVo Foundation and the Goren Group rights to develop the facility, which was closed in 2012 after sustaining damage during Superstorm Sandy. NoVo’s goal is to transform the facility, renamed the Women’s Building, into a hub of office and meeting space for organizations working on behalf of girls and women.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoOn Sunday, a block party was held in front of the Women’s Building, located in the swanky Chelsea neighborhood, to get neighbors’ ideas on the project.

“Today is a chance for us to introduce the project to our neighbors and to get their ideas about the future of this space,” said Joe Voeller, a spokesman for NoVo Foundation.

NoVo isn’t just seeking input from neighbors. Since last year, the foundation has been meeting with women, like Wilkins, who were formerly incarcerated at the facility. No one knows the building better than those who were imprisoned there, she said.

“They can walk through the building a thousand times, but when they walk through it with somebody that had to live here, that was incarcerated here, it’s a different vibe,” Wilkins said, adding that an advisory committee comprised of formerly incarcerated women regularly meets with NoVo Foundation representatives to plan for the building’s future.

Sharon Richardson, 56, the owner of Just Soul Catering, said she’s thrilled to be part of the advisory committee. “They’ve been doing focus groups with me and other formerly incarcerated women, and we actually brainstorm what would we’d like to see,” she said.

Sharon Richardson talks with young people at a block party for the Women’s Building in New York on Sunday.

Sharon Richardson talks with young people at a block party for the Women’s Building in New York on Sunday.

Convicted of murdering her abuser, Richardson spent the last year of a 20-year sentence at the facility. She was released in 2010. She used to watch ships coming in from the window of her fifth-floor cell.

“Now they ask me what would I like to see the fifth floor look like, and it’s so powerful to be a part of that,” she said.

Deborah Berke Partners has been selected as the designer and architect for the transformation, which is scheduled to begin in 2017 and be completed by 2020.

“It will transform a space that’s been all about pain and confinement into a space that will stand for liberation and justice and equality for all girls and all women,” Voeller said, adding that leaders who work with women and children have long sought a common space in the city.

One of Richardson’s goals is to work with formerly incarcerated women to train judges, correction officers and parole officers.

“You see them going into prisons, acting in ways that are not professional — they’re hurting too, we need to sit with them, talk with them and hear each other,” she said. There must be healing in order to fix a broken system, she said.

Wilkins said she plans to stay involved with the NoVo Foundation and the Women’s Building in order to help young women avoid incarceration altogether and to help them learn from those who have been through the system.

“It took women who were incarcerated here to tell those stories,” she said. “We want to do exactly the opposite of what this building represented for so many years.”

Neighborhood residents’ visions for the Women’s Building are posted on a wall at a block party held in New York on Sunday.

Neighborhood residents’ visions for the Women’s Building were posted on a wall at a block party held in New York on Sunday.

Richardson agreed.

“Our memories and the lives of the women that spent time in Bayview — we’re in the walls, we’re in the floors, we’re in the light fixtures,” Richardson said. “It’s a whole metamorphosis. I can’t wait for the day they cut that ribbon.”