NYC Council To Vote On Public Advocate’s Bill To Support Transgender Individuals On Rikers

July 13th, 2023

Press Release

As the crisis on Rikers Island continues, with the federal monitor calling for the Department of Correction (DOC) to be held in contempt, the New York City Council will vote today on Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams' bill to provide transparency, accountability, and support for transgender New Yorkers held in city jails. The bill was unanimously approved by the Committee on Criminal Justice this morning.

The legislation, Intro 887-B, would require the DOC to regularly report on information related to individuals in custody whose gender identity is different from the sex assigned to the individual at birth, including, transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, or intersex individuals. The department would be required to report information regarding such individuals’ housing placements, denials of requests for housing that most closely aligns with a person’s gender identity, and involuntary transfers from housing most closely aligns with a person’s gender identity.

“In a space that is dangerous for people on both sides of the bars, transgender and gender non-conforming people face even greater threats and challenges,” said Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams on the bill. “This legislation is designed to help ensure that TGNCNBI people are receiving the services and accommodations they are entitled to, and provide a metric for accountability when those needs are not met. TGNCNBI people deserve the same respect and dignity as their cisgender peers, and this is not negated when they are incarcerated. We have seen the tragic results of a failure to recognize and address this, and until DOC makes changes to ensure that city jails are safe for everyone, we will continue to lose valuable members of our communities.”

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. In part because of this, TGNCNBI people are far more likely to be victims of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse while incarcerated.

Before the vote, the Public Advocate specifically highlighted a current case in which a public defender with seven clients on Rikers who are transgender women placed in men's housing units. All remain in those units despite the efforts of the attorney and the fact that the women have been repeatedly sexually and physically assaulted. He called for the administration to immediately transfer them to gender-aligned housing and noted that "Failure to do so signals to all DOC staff that their failure to assign individuals to requested gender-aligned housing—and the violence that comes as a consequence—is an acceptable practice."

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.

Arguably 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. In addition to today’s legislation, the Public Advocate is the lead sponsor of Intro 549, which would ban solitary confinement in city jails.

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