As prepared for delivery
Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Chair, Keith Powers
Committee on Women and Gender Equity
Chair, Darma Diaz
Executive Director of Women’s Initiatives
April 27, 2021
Good morning Chair Powers, Chair Diaz, and members of the Criminal Justice Committee and Committee on Gender Equity. My name is Anne Penson and I am the Executive Director of Women’s Initiatives at the Department of Correction. I am joined today by Deputy Commissioner of Programming and Community Partnerships Dr. Judy Beale, Deputy Commissioner of Investigation and Trials Sarena Townsend, and Deputy Warden in Charge Elyn Rivera, who oversees operations at the Rose M. Singer Center, the Department’s female facility. I am also pleased to be joined by colleagues at NYC H+H Correctional Health Services and the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice, both of whom are important partners in the care of women in custody. The Department recognizes that women involved in the justice system are often victims of trauma and have high rates of substance use and mental illness; therefore, the Department provides gender responsive care and programming to support the mothers, sisters, and daughters placed in our custody. I thank you for the opportunity to update the Council on the Department’s efforts to support its female population and to comment on the three bills being considered at today’s hearing.
The number of women in custody has significantly declined in recent years. Whereas the population was almost 700 in April of 2016, today there are approximately 250 women in the Department’s care. Regardless of the number of women in custody, the Department maintains a facility that provides a variety of programming, reentry, and healthcare services that are responsive to women’s unique needs. Department Counselors meet with each woman who comes into custody to assess her individualized needs and challenges and create a targeted plan that includes both jail-based and community-based services and will support a successful reentry into the community. Programming and reentry services are tailored to women and incorporate gender-responsive, trauma-informed practices, and also focus on strengthening family connections through visit assistance for women with children. In addition, RMSC operates a clinic that provides a broad spectrum of women’s health services, houses women in need of additional support in mental health and substance use in dedicated units and provides an array of life and vocational skill development.
In an effort to further improve programmatic services, in 2020, the Department redesigned its program delivery model to take an individualized, case management approach to the provision of programs and services for all persons in custody. As part of this process, incarcerated individuals meet one-on-one with a Counselor and are referred to programming based on their unique needs, including services designed to support family relationships and address trauma. This new service delivery model will better connect individuals in custody with services that support their specific needs and better support them in successfully reentering the community.
In recent years, the Department has implemented a series of initiatives to address the unique needs of women in DOC custody. These initiatives are designed to strengthen mother-child relationships, empower women, connect them with resources in the community, improve their visit experience, train staff on gender-responsive practices, and ensure that DOC’s policies are gender-responsive. Notably, the Department created a nationally recognized off-island visitation program that enabled mothers to visit their children at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, strengthening the mother-child bond and lessening the impact of incarceration on the family. Over the course of the pandemic, the Department has afforded televisiting for persons in custody and worked with the Osborne Association and Hour Children to continue to facilitate supportive family visitation. We are continuing to work with these partners to develop more interactive televisiting opportunities between mother and children and to further support family connections during this unprecedented time. While some of these initiatives have been borne out of the challenges presented by the pandemic, we will continue to find ways to improve programming and services for women in custody and carry the lessons learned during the past year into future programming plans.
During the pandemic, the Department has continued to work with its community partners to provide modified services, including dedicated discharge planning hotlines. These hotlines connect incarcerated women to discharge planning caseworkers, ensuring women maintain connection to services that will be available to them upon release. In the coming months, the Department will also be collaborating with MOCJ to further assist women in custody with post-release planning and services. Although we have not yet been able to welcome our community providers back into our facilities, DOC programming staff have been providing direct programming services to people in custody since October, including individualized assessments and case management, and counseling and on-unit programming in a socially distanced manner.
In addition, as part of our commitment to address the unique needs of women in our care, we are working with a national expert to develop a staff training on gender-responsive practices and trauma-informed care. We are also working with the expert to review existing policies and develop new ones to ensure that gender-responsive approaches are reflected in our daily operations.
Finally, the Department takes the safety and welfare of women in custody seriously. Violent incidents and uses of force involving women in custody remains low and the Department works to provide staff with trauma informed training to help staff maintain a supportive environment for the women in our care. In 2019, the RMSC passed a PREA compliance audit. The Department’s Investigation Division exceeded standards in that same audit and continues to receive ratings of substantial compliance from the Nunez monitor for its investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.
With respect to the proposed legislation:
The Department recognizes the support doulas bring to mothers during the birthing process. As such, the Department supports this legislation but for the safety of all involved would advise the doula needs to be subject to and clear a standard security review prior to the mother’s due date. We look forward to working with the Council in further discussing this legislation.
With regard to Intro 1491, the Department enthusiastically supports the provision of trauma-informed training and interview techniques for investigators who review sexual abuse and harassment allegations. The Department currently mandates such training and agrees with the Council that its provision is critical to investigators’ success in investigating sensitive matters.
With regard to Intro 1646, the Department agrees with the Council that a centralized case management system for sexual abuse cases would support the overall work of the investigations division. The Department previously agreed to build such a system through a corrective action agreement with the Board of Correction. Since that time, the Department has issued an RFP and is in the final phases of establishing a vendor to build and implement such a system.
The Department of Correction is committed to meeting the needs of women in its care and appreciates the Council’s interest and attention to this often-overlooked group. My colleagues and I are happy to answer your questions.