Changing the Lives of Women in Prison: An Interview with Merle Hoffman

Photo credit: Vanessa Valenti

A photo of Merle Hoffman, founder and CEO of the Choices Women’s Medical Center. Photo credit: Vanessa Valenti

When the Rose M. Singer Center opened on New York City’s Rikers Island in 1988, it was touted as a “state of the art” facility where women prisoners would get training in the culinary arts, horticulture and sewing. According to the Center’s official history, the new center was expected to provide the correction facility’s staff with a chance to implement innovative programs—with an emphasis on vocational skill-building—that would lead to jobs when the women were released. In addition, the Center boasted of creating the nation’s first jail-based nursery, where new mothers and their babies could spend time together.

Fast-forward three decades. While the nursery remains open, few other innovations remain. In fact, many of the 800-plus women housed in the medium security prison have multiple gripes—from the food, to the boredom they experience, to the lack of access to medical and mental-health care.

Merle Hoffman, founder and CEO of the Choices Women’s Medical Center, heard these complaints and, with several clinic staff, recently went into the prison and met with some of the women who are incarcerated there.

She spoke with Eleanor J. Bader about what they found, and what they hope to do to ameliorate these difficulties.