Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Rikers Is Already Awful, and It’s Worse if You’re Trans

Jails and prisons are rarely designed to be humane for anyone, but for trans, nonbinary and intersex people these institutions can be especially dangerous. Beyond the loss of community and freedom, these gender-expansive detainees frequently are denied a piece of themselves.

From 2018 to 2022, I worked in the New York City Department of Correction, including time as chief of staff under Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, helping oversee Rikers Island. Rikers, New York City’s notorious jail complex, is meant to hold people before trial, yet people can languish there for years. My colleagues and I helped put into place some of the country’s few policies and regulations for housing gender-expansive detainees. Before I left, at the start of a new mayoral administration, we were on the verge of raising the bar higher.

Those efforts came to a screeching halt after Mayor Eric Adams’s new commissioner, Louis Molina, took charge in 2022. The department’s L.G.B.T.Q. Affairs staff and many attorneys representing gender-expansive clients lost the direct line to agency leadership they once had. The department’s gender-expansive policies still look good on paper, but that is only part of the story. In my time at the department, and especially after I left, these policies were frequently undermined by an organizational culture that fails to respect detainees’ gender identities. (The department did not respond to The New York Times’s requests for comment.)

In testimony before the City Council in January, Mr. Molina said that when gender-expansive detainees are housed in facilities that don’t align with their identity, their attorneys can alert the Correction Department by calling 311 or the department’s grievance services office. But the office can take up to seven days to investigate complaints — and the potential consequences of such delays are dire.

When I worked at the department, I witnessed slow responses to housing placement concerns lead to harassment, beatings and sexual assault. Quick action from the department is critical to protecting these detainees; a few unguarded moments can result in a lifetime’s worth of harm.

Gender-aligned housing also supports basic dignity. Rikers’s female facility, the Rose M. Singer Center, also known as Rosie’s, provides gender-expansive detainees with easy access to everything from appropriate undergarments to hormone therapy. In male facilities, gender-expansive care can be more inconsistent. Many trans people don’t feel safe enough there to continue hormone therapy at all.

According to the most recent Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report on sexual victimization in prisons and jails, from 2007 to 2012, more than a third of transgender prisoners had been sexually assaulted annually, a rate eight times as high as among prisoners generally. Distressing as they are, those figures fail to capture the true scope of abuse, not to mention the harassment that frequently precedes violence.

Mr. Molina’s seeming unwillingness to continue prioritizing the housing needs of  gender-expansive detainees has stalled years of slow improvement. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the department began placing detainees according to their gender identity. When gender-expansive detainees enter custody, they can request to be housed in Rosie’s (either in the general population with cisgender women or in a subsection that includes other gender-expansive people) or in one of the department’s male jails. A panel of the jail’s staff from different divisions reviews gender-expansive housing requests.

However, since the start of the de Blasio administration policy, these panels have frequently overruled the L.G.B.T.Q. Affairs unit’s recommendations. The panel often assumes that trans women are a threat to cis women, either explicitly or implicitly denying that trans women are women. Such assumptions are divorced from the conditions that truly maintain jail safety: attentive and trained corrections officers, state-of-the-art facilities with limited blind spots, and a respect for basic human dignity. These panels typically cite federal prison safety laws when denying gender-expansive detainees an assignment that matches their gender identity.

Initial gender-aligned placements are half the battle. For trans women, remaining in Rosie’s is predicated on good behavior, a requirement for safe housing not placed on cis women. The Department of Correction does not provide public statistics on the distribution of gender-expansive people in its custody, but in my experience, roughly half of these detainees are living in misaligned housing at any time.

After the high-profile death of a trans detainee at Rikers in 2019, the City Council created a task force to improve conditions for incarcerated trans and nonbinary people. Using the task force’s recommendations as a guide, I and my colleagues drafted policies that ensured the L.G.B.T.Q. Affairs unit’s voices were prioritized in trans housing decisions.

Our pressure brought slow but steady movement in the department’s willingness to default to gender-aligned housing placements. I’m not claiming to have solved all issues, but I’m proud of the work we did.

In Mr. Molina’s tenure, two of the three members of the L.G.B.T.Q. Affairs unit have quit, citing a pattern of senior leadership and sexual safety staff being inattentive to or outright dismissive of the needs of gender-expansive detainees. In his January testimony, Mr. Molina attempted to characterize these departures as normal turnover. But the concerns raised by these employees should not be ignored.

By all indications, the system we built before my 2022 departure has crumbled, yet that does not mean it cannot be rebuilt. There are steps that Mr. Molina, the department, legislators and the Board of Correction should adopt now to improve conditions for gender-expansive detainees.

The department can begin by assigning a senior staff member with the power to respond to housing assignment concerns quickly. When I worked there, I made myself the emergency point of contact for gender-expansive detainees, spending nights and weekends on the phone with attorneys and wardens to ensure safe housing.

To improve accountability, the department should share data with the City Council-mandated task force. To address the concerns raised by the L.G.B.T.Q. Affairs unit, the department should invite an independent third party to assess the unit’s complaints.

Beyond accountability, the department must make changes to safeguard gender-expansive detainees. It must return to its intention of giving the greatest weight to L.G.B.T.Q. experts in decisions regarding gender-expansive people. It also must establish exclusively gender-expansive units in male facilities along with carrying out the other remaining recommendations from the task force.

Treating incarcerated people — including gender-expansive detainees — with basic dignity is the cornerstone of a truly just and safe jail system. New York City and the Department of Correction have an opportunity to stand in bold opposition to a national rollback of trans rights. I urge them to take it.

Dana Wax (@thatdanawax), a criminal justice consultant, spent nearly a decade in New York City government, including working as chief of staff to the commissioner of the Department of Correction.

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