The Brooklyn Women’s Shelter is a hulking beige compound on a desolate street in East New York. The walls are fringed with barbed-wire and pictures of the outside are actively discouraged by security. Photography of the interior is totally prohibited. Visitors are forbidden too; to sneak inside you would have to disable the electric lock on the heavy doors of the only entrance, creep under the looming arch of a metal detector and weave, somehow unobserved, through a waiting room occupied by wary guards.
For the last two months, Raqibah Basir has shared a room at the shelter with 11 other women. Her nights are often sleepless. A wet towel placed on the wrong bed or a missing toothbrush is enough to spark a fight. She can’t eat the shelter’s food because she needs a low-sodium diet for her hypertension but the disability checks she uses for meals – saltless chicken soup sipped in local cafes and stewed dumplings packaged in polystyrene containers – are resources she could be saving for an apartment.
Two years ago, the state released Basir after 27 years in prison. She had been convicted of murdering her daughter in a fit of rage after the discovery of missing money, a crime of which, Basir insists, she is innocent. She spent four years in Rikers Island, 21 in Bedford Hills and two in Albion. Since her release, she has been shuttled from shelter to shelter.
Now, at 57, Basir is very old to be starting all over again. But that’s the challenge facing a growing number of older ex-inmates thrust into freedom in New York State.