The Rikers Island prison complex.
Image: AP

New York City is planning to start housing inmates according to their gender identity, reports the Observer. By early October, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals will be given “safe and gender-affirming housing options,” according to a press release. The Department of Correction (DOC) will also continue to run its Transgender Housing Unit.

“It’s the city’s responsibility to protect the rights and safety of all New Yorkers and that means protecting transgender individuals in city jails as well,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a statement.

As painfully obvious as recognizing inmates’ gender identity might sound, New York City is one of the first major cities to make such a move. In 2015, San Francisco became “the first in the country to permit individuals who identify as transgender, gender variant, or non-binary to pick their preferred housing,” according to the Observer.

As the de Blasio press release points out, “many US cities and states force transgender and gender non-conforming inmates into solitary confinement or house inmates according to their gender assigned at birth, putting them at higher risk for physical and sexual violence.” The research bears that out: A 2009 study in California found that transgender people were 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison.

This policy change follows de Blasio’s executive order in 2016 mandating that people can access the city’s single-sex facilities in accordance with their gender identity, and without having to show identification or medical documentation. At the time, the DOC received a temporary exemption from the order—but now the New York City Human Rights Commission has issued new requirements that apply specifically to the city’s jails. The DOC has six months to comply.

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Under the new rules, inmates will be housed according to their gender identity unless “an individual safety assessment...or the preferences and safety concerns communicated by the inmate require an alternative housing option,” reports the Observer. An individual safety assessment considers “factors such as whether inmates are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex or gender non-conforming; their previous experience of sexual assault; and their own perception of vulnerability.”

Still, the DOC does not have the best track record around making these kinds of sensitive decisions. The Village Voice reported late last year on claims that transgender women had been unfairly denied access to the Transgender Housing Unit, which the DOC previously said it would shutter, and that some had “been transferred into male facilities after their external genitalia were observed in medical exams.”