As Department Of Correction Lessens Protections For Lgbtq+ Individuals In Custody, Public Advocate Pushes Accountability Bill

January 25th, 2023

Press Release

After new reporting revealed the extent to which key protections and services for transgender individuals incarcerated on Rikers Island have been weakened and removed by the administration, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams demanded accountability and pushed for legislative change in a City Council hearing of the Committees on Criminal Justice and Women and Gender Equity today.

The Public Advocate’s legislation, Int 887, would require the Department of Correction (DOC) to report on a monthly basis information related to individuals in DOC custody whose gender identity is different from the sex assigned to the individual at birth, including, but not limited to, transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, or intersex. DOC would be required to report information regarding such individuals’ housing unit placements; denials and objections to current housing unit placements; and instances of violence against such individuals.

Public Advocate Williams explained that this legislation is essential because, “Nearly one in six transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and intersex (TGNCNBI) people has been to prison. Too often, departments of correction do not house TGNCNBI people in populations consistent with their gender identities, and instead isolate them or place them in housing units according to the sex they were assigned at birth, regardless of whether that aligns with their gender identity or if they have medically transitioned. While many assume that TGNCNBI people—transgender women in particular—pose a threat to their cisgender peers, they are far more likely to be victims of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse while incarcerated.” New York City has a duty to create safe and humane jails for everyone incarcerated in them, especially those at greater risk of violence.

Since its inception, the Department of Correction’s LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit has made genuine improvements for LGBT and TGNC New Yorkers incarcerated on Rikers Island, creating safe housing and recreation spaces behind bars. Unfortunately, over the past year and under a new administration, the unit has reportedly been weakened. Trans women have struggled to transfer out of male facilities, where they can face relentless sexual harassment and assault. According to an August report by a Board of Correction task force, of the 41 people whose gender identities the task force knew, 63 percent were in housing misaligned with their gender identities, including 58 percent of trans women and 100 percent of trans men.

In his remarks, the Public Advocate acknowledged the need to make systemic cultural reforms beyond this bill, saying “I do want to say as a cisgender, straight man of faith, who is Black and Caribbean, I want to note that we cannot legislate empathy or respect for TGNCNBI people. That is the responsibility for all of us, and I want to make sure I am clear – I intentionally had to make sure I grew in many areas to understand, and still have more growth to do. Hopefully we can all acknowledge that with ourselves, so we can protect everyone. Sometimes I think that’s something that’s sorely missing... TGNCNBI people deserve the same respect and dignity as their cisgender peers, and this is not negated when they are incarcerated. Until DOC makes changes to ensure that city jails are safe for everyone, we will continue to lose valuable members of our communities.”

Public Advocate Williams is also the lead sponsor of a resolution heard today, Reso 117, which calls on the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign, a bill that would mandate the Office of Court Administration to update the securing order form to include a gender X option.

Read the Public Advocate’s full statement at today’s hearing:

STATEMENT OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS

TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND THE COMMITTEE ON WOMEN AND GENDER EQUITY

JANUARY 25, 2023

Good morning,

My name is Jumaane D. Williams and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chairs Rivera and Cabán and the members of the Committees on Criminal Justice and Women and Gender Equity for holding this important hearing.

Nearly one in six transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and intersex (TGNCNBI) people has been to prison. Too often, departments of correction do not house TGNCNBI people in populations consistent with their gender identities, and instead isolate them or place them in housing units according to the sex they were assigned at birth, regardless of whether that aligns with their gender identity or if they have medically transitioned. While many assume that TGNCNBI people—transgender women in particular—pose a threat to their cisgender peers, they are far more likely to be victims of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse while incarcerated.

In 1979, the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) created a special unit within the men’s jail on Rikers Island to house transgender women and gay men. At the time, this was the only such unit in the country. Eventually, however, the same problems that existed elsewhere in the jail plagued the unit, and it was shut down in 2005.

Perhaps the most well-known example of the abuse and disrespect experienced by TGNCNBI people incarcerated at Rikers is the tragic 2019 death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman whom DOC refused to house in general population with cisgender women, who died alone in solitary confinement despite her known history of seizures. It is possible Layleen would be alive today had DOC placed her in a housing unit consistent with her gender identity.

In the wake of Layleen’s death, the City Council passed Local Law 145, which commissioned the Board of Correction to convene a task force, composed of government representatives and advocates, to examine issues faced by TGNCNBI incarcerated people. In August of last year, the task force published its first report, which detailed the astounding and devastating harms, abuses, and indignities that TGNCNBI people face while incarcerated in New York City jails.

The indignities that TGNCNBI people experience while incarcerated often start at arrest, when the arresting officer incorrectly lists a person’s sex they were assigned at birth and their name in the paperwork. The inaccurate information is then repeated by the attorney drafting the criminal complaint. Additionally, there is no option for gender markers outside of the male/female binary. That misinformation is led down all the way through the process, often leading to people being misidentified, often leading to assault, abuse, and trauma.

In a majority of the cases the task force studied, incarcerated TGNCNBI people were not housed in units consistent with their gender identity. Of the 41 people whose gender identities the task force knew, 63 percent were in housing misaligned with their gender identities, including 58 percent of trans women and 100 percent of trans men. 

The task force also found that multiple transgender women had been removed from their gender-aligned housing unit to the men’s jail as a means of punishment and/or control. It cannot be overstated how dangerous this practice is; the women who had been moved reported repeated verbal, physical, and sexual attacks, sometimes by the same person despite the victim reporting the assault. DOC would never transfer a cisgender woman to the men’s jail as a means of punishment, and this disregard for the safety of TGNCNBI people is absolutely unacceptable. 

Yesterday, in an article published by The City, – according to that article, the administration has walked back progress made in accurately and respectfully housing TGNCNBI people, particularly trans women, in city jails. It also says the administration has fired or pushed out administrators that pushed for TGNCNBI people to be housed in the facilities that align with their gender identities, and effectively cut off any power or influence that the LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit had to fight for the dignity and safety of LGBTQ+ incarcerated people. The unit now only employs one person after the rest of the staff resigned in protest—one of whom had suicidal thoughts because they felt powerless to intervene in the abuse. I want to acknowledge the courageous whistleblowers and incarcerated trans women who told their stories despite the risk of reprisal.

Many TGNBCNBI people are incarcerated in NYC jails, particularly non-binary and intersex people and people who have overlapping gender identities, for which no data was available at all. My bill, Int 0887-2023, would require DOC to report on a monthly basis information related to individuals in DOC custody whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, including TGNCNBI people. DOC would also be required to report information regarding such individuals’ housing unit placements, denials and objections to current housing unit placements, and instances of violence against such individuals. Today the Council is also hearing Res 0117-2022, a resolution calling on the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign, a bill that would mandate the Office of Court Administration to update the securing order form to include a gender X option. I thank the chairs for hearing these bills today, as this information is vital to the task force and to efforts to improve the living conditions for TGNCNBI incarcerated in city jails.

Lastly, I do want to say as a cisgender, straight man of faith, who is Black and Caribbean, I want to note that we cannot legislate empathy or respect for TGNCNBI people. That is the responsibility for all of us, and I want to make sure I am clear – I intentionally had to make sure I grew in many areas to understand, and still have more growth to do. Hopefully we can all acknowledge that with ourselves, so we can protect everyone. Sometimes I think that’s something that’s sorely missing. 

TGNCNBI people deserve the same respect and dignity as their cisgender peers, and this is not negated when they are incarcerated. Until DOC makes changes to ensure that city jails are safe for everyone, we will continue to lose valuable members of our communities.

Thank you.

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