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New York’s Rikers Island prison gets child-friendly visiting room ahead of Mother’s Day

NEW YORK (AP) — It’s probably the last place a mother wants to spend Mother’s Day with her children. But a family visit space at New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison complex is a little more kid-friendly after a colorful redesign by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

The prison opened a new play and preschool learning room for the children and grandchildren of inmates on Tuesday, a few days before the public holiday Sunday.

“Mother’s Day means everything to me,” said Nadine Leach, 43, an inmate at Rikers, as she watched her three-year-old granddaughter, Queen, enthusiastically explore the sound machines, coloring books and toys.

An interactive wall display features a map of the city’s five boroughs. The buttons underneath trigger city sounds, like the screech of a subway.

Leach’s daughter, Lashawna Jones, 27, said the play installation looked beautiful compared to her last visit. Before, it was a mostly empty 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 felony drug charges.

“It makes me sad that she won’t be home with us for Mother’s Day. Because I feel a little sad coming to visit him here because I’m used to having him physically at home with us. Right now, I’m a big girl; I’m holding back tears,” Jones said.

To get to the facility, families take a bus, go through security and drug screening, and pass walls with six layers of barbed wire. Outside the new play center, a blue cinder block sign reads: “Inmates are allowed to hold their children during visitation. »

The visitors center was designed and installed by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and replicates the exhibits at the museum’s headquarters on the Upper West Side.

The exhibits teach preschool skills: communication, sharing, literacy and executive functions, said Leslie Bushara, the museum’s program manager.

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

“We want mothers to have interactions with their children,” Maginley-Liddie said. “You know, being incarcerated can be very difficult. This can be difficult for children. This can be difficult for moms. And it’s important for them to have those connections even while they’re in our care, so that when they’re released, that connection is maintained while they’re incarcerated. »

Rikers Island consists primarily of men’s prisons that can hold approximately 6,000 people. Child-friendly exhibits will be added to these facilities over the next year, the museum said in a statement. Funding for the exhibits will also allow authorized inmates to visit the Children’s Museum of Manhattan twice a month.

People imprisoned at Rikers are either charged with crimes tried in court or serving short sentences. City officials voted to close the entire complex in 2026 and replace it with smaller neighborhood facilities that are easier for loved ones to visit, but the deadline was pushed back. The poor conditions raised the prospect of a federal takeover.

The women’s prison, called the Rose M. Singer Center, currently houses about 370 people, according to the Department of Corrections. State officials have moved hundreds of women to state facilities in 2021 in an effort to improve safety.

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Associated Press writer Cedar Attanasio contributed to this report.

Ted Shaffrey, Associated Press