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New York's Rikers Island jail gets a kid-friendly visitation room for Mother's Day

The visitation hub was designed and installed by the Children's Museum of Manhattan and replicates its exhibitions.
Nadine Leach, Lashawna Jones at Rikers island
Posted at 10:41 AM, May 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-12 11:41:26-04

It's probably the last place a mom wants to spend Mother's Day with her kids. But a family visiting space at New York City's notorious Rikers Island jail complex is a little more kid-friendly after a colorful redesign by the Children's Museum of Manhattan.

The jail opened the new preschool play and learning room for the children and grandchildren of female prisoners on Tuesday, a few days ahead of the Sunday holiday.

"Mother's Day means everything to me," said Rikers inmate Nadine Leach, 43, as she watched her three-year-old granddaughter, Queen, excitedly explore the sound machines, coloring books and toys.

One interactive wall display shows a map of the city's five boroughs. Buttons below trigger city sounds, like the screech of a subway.

Leach's daughter Lashawna Jones, 27, said the play installation is beautiful compared with her last visit. Before, it was a mostly bare room, with a few books. Jones said the design focused her children's attention on imaginative play, instead of their grandmother being in jail and awaiting trial on a felony drug charge.

"It makes me sad that she's not actually home with us for Mother's Day. Because I feel like a little sad coming here to visit her here because I'm used to having her physically home with us. Like, right now, I'm being a big girl; I'm holding my tears back," Jones said.

To get to the facility, families take a bus, go through security and drug screenings, and pass by walls with six layers of razor wire. Outside the new play center, a sign on blue cinderblock reads, "Inmates are permitted to hold their children during the visit."

The visitation hub was designed and installed by the Children's Museum of Manhattan and replicates exhibitions at the museum's home on the Upper West Side.

The exhibits teach preschool skills: communication, sharing, literacy and executive function, said Leslie Bushara, the museum's chief program officer.

Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, cut a giant green ceremonial ribbon to open the room.

"We want mothers to have interactions with their kids," Maginley-Liddie said. "You know, being incarcerated can be very difficult. It can be difficult on the children. It can be difficult on the moms. And it's important for them to have those connections even while they're in our care, so that when they are released, that bond has been sustained during incarceration."

Rikers Island consists mainly of men's jail facilities that house around 6,000 people. Child-friendly exhibits will be added to those facilities over the next year, the museum said in a statement. Funding for the exhibits also will allow approved inmates to travel to the Children's Museum of Manhattan twice per month.

People jailed at Rikers are either charged with crimes being tested in court or are serving short sentences. City officials voted to close the entire complex in 2026 and replace it with smaller neighborhood facilities that would be easier for relatives to visit, but the deadline was pushed back. Poor conditions have raised the prospect of a federal takeover.

The women's jail, called the Rose M. Singer Center, currently holds around 370 people, according to the Department of Corrections. State officials moved hundreds of women into state facilities in 2021 in an effort to improve safety.