As is the case in much of the country, transgender people in New York City jails are not being given the treatment they’re entitled to. That situation may well worsen if a special housing unit is eliminated as planned, a new report in the Village Voice has found.
Since 2014, New York City has run a Transgender Housing Unit, a potentially admirable idea in theory that suffers from less-than-perfect execution. While inmates report that life in the THU is certainly better than outside it, admission standards are inconsistent; trans women are often rejected without knowing why.
“People are frequently denied admission without any reasons given, and while we have no way of knowing the grounds for DOC decisions, they often appear arbitrary and baseless,” Legal Aid Society supervising attorney Dori Lewis wrote in August.
But rather than fix the THU, the Department of Correction has announced plans to shutter it, replacing it instead with several special units that would house trans women alongside male populations known to be vulnerable to prison sexual violence, including short men, non-English speakers and the disabled. According to the Voice, LGBT experts are worried that placing trans women on the same unit as male prisoners, vulnerable or not, will increase the threat of violence.
The decision to close the THU was made after the Board of Correction—an independent oversight agency—voted in 2016 to bring it in line with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act. Instead, the DOC announced it would eliminate it altogether, to be replaced by the new mixed-unit arrangement. Advocates have pressed the department to bring other facilities into compliance with PREA standards before closing the THU, calling for the establishment of basic protocols for doing pat-downs and cavity searches, as well as rules for investigating sexual assault and abuse allegations.
The department has denied any wrongdoing, telling the Voice in a statement that “Transgender individuals in DOC custody are placed in the proper housing unit to best ensure their safety, which remains the department’s top priority.”
New York is far from the only state failing to offer adequate protections for its trans population. Last month, a transgender woman in Massachusetts sued the state’s Department of Correction for the right to be transferred from the men’s block to the women’s.