A Former Women’s Prison Transformed

Next month, construction will begin on the Bayview Correctional Facility at the corner of 20th and 11th avenue. The former women’s prison will be renovated as a women’s center housing nonprofits and other businesses. But many of the people involved in the transition still remember the site as it once was. Meg Dalton reports.

 

I meet Sharon Richardson on the third floor of what used to be the Bayview Correctional Facility.

 

She leads me to one of the old cells. It’s empty now but it used to have…

 

RICHARDSON 1: A bed, right, chair, lockbox, that’s it.

 

And a window. It’s a pretty bleak room, but Richardson says most women would decorate their walls.

 

RICHARDSON 2:They took pictures of what they had from their kids or family members off a visit. And we put toothpaste on the back of those pictures. And that’s how they stuck on the wall.

 

There aren’t any traces of toothpaste left on the walls now. And the furniture is long gone. But her memories are as strong as ever.

 

Looking out the window, Richardson is overcome with emotion. She’s thinking about the day she was released 6 years ago.

 

RICHARDSON 3: I go down those front stairs and i sign these papers and they put the key in the door and opened the door and i walk out. Free.

 

The Brooklyn native spent 20 years in prison for the role she played in the murder of a man she says abused her and her children.

 

Today Richardson is part of the team turning this former corrections facility into a feminist center. Which is what Pamela Shifman, executive director of the NoVo Foundation, the group behind the renovation, always envisioned

 

SHIFMAN 1: These are women who have experienced the worst of what society does to marginalize women. And therefore often have the most creative ideas of how this space can be used.

 

The state of New York closed the prison after it was heavily damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

 

SHIFMAN 2:When it was a prison it was very dark and forbidding so all of the women we talked to especially the women who had been incarcerated at bayview said this women’s building needs to be filled with light. It needs to be a place that feels very welcoming and warm.

 

Shifman says they’ve interviewed hundreds of women like Richardson about what the building should look like. Rooms that were once prison cells and a commissary will soon be offices, an art gallery and daycare center.

 

The walls of the prison gym have already gotten a bit of a makeover. The room is full of portraits celebrating women done by photographer Annie Leibovitz. She opened the exhibit last month with some help from feminist activist Gloria Steinem. At the opening reception, Steinem said she’s been pushing for a women’s center in the city since the 1970s.

 

GLORIA 1: We have spent 40 years in this city trying to have a real women’s building, or women’s center. San Francisco has a big beautiful building, an old building that they transformed that’s been there for 40 years. Other cities do. But the intensity of real estate, the pressure of real estate here has literally kept this from happening for 40 years. (00:25)

 

Like the building itself, Sharon Richardson, who was incarcerated at Bayview, is undergoing her own transformation. She now runs a soul food catering company. And works as a reentry specialist, helping women who are just getting out of prison. She looks forward to continuing this work in the new space.

 

RICHARDSON 4: There is a place where you can come and actually trust . maybe there’s no one in your family that you can actually trust. But you can come to the women’s building and find women here who will not judge you and will sit with you HANDS ON for hours at a time and actually talk and get you through whatever it is that you’re going through. That’s powerful.

 

The Women’s Building is expected to open in 2020.

 

Meg Dalton. Columbia Radio News.

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