Metro Weekly

New York City Prisons Fail to Protect Trans Inmates, Report Says

Task force formed in wake of trans woman's death finds correction system fails to properly take care of trans and gender-nonconforming inmates.

Photo: Paweł Czerwiński, via Unsplash.

A report from a task force convened by the New York City Board of Correction following the 2019 death of a transgender woman in custody at Rikers Island has found that the city’s corrections system continually fails to properly house, protect, and care for transgender, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary and intersex inmates.

The report from the Task Force on Issues Faced by TGNCNBI People, which reviewed DOC practices dating back to 2018, found a number of problems with the way city jails have handled trans inmates, starting from intake and often lasting through the duration of their time behind bars.

For example, the report finds that transgender women are routinely sent through a men’s jail intake facility, and may remain there for days. Based on statistics from March of this year, nearly two-thirds of incarcerated trans people identified by the task force were given housing assignments that did not align with their gender identity.

The task force — comprised of 19 people, including advocates for transgender and incarcerated individuals, delegates from the City Council, and Correctional Health Services staffers — was formed as a result of legislation passed by the City Council following the death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old trans woman who died from an epileptic seizure while in solitary confinement, despite having a documented medical history of such seizures.

The city ultimately settled a lawsuit brought by Polanco’s family for $5.9 million and disciplined 17 corrections officers for their alleged failure to act in a way that could have prevented Polanco’s death.

According to the task force report, trans and nonbinary inmates are routinely misgendered and placed in housing based on their assigned sex at birth, rather than their gender identity. Part of this can be attributed to a lack of up-to-date identity documents that accurately reflect a prisoner’s preferred name and gender marker, assumptions made by jail staff about a person’s gender identity, or reliance on inaccurate or erroneous paperwork — submitted by either police or by court employees — that does not accurately reflect an inmate’s gender identity.

For instance, London Reynolds, a trans woman incarcerated following a 2020 arrest, was detained in male housing units on Rikers Island for months because a court staffer marked her gender as “male” on her official paperwork. Soon after receiving a housing assignment, a male detainee broke into her cell and sexual assaulted her, with prison staff failing to take any actions to protect her. She was beaten severely by two other inmates and sexually assaulted a second time by another inmate. She reported the rape, but was only moved to a different men’s unit.

“None of this would have happened if they just put ‘F’ on my paperwork,” Reynolds told the task force, according to the report.

In some cases, an inmate may be placed into solitary confinement or restrictive housing due to their gender identity. Additionally, even in cases where trans people are placed in gender-affirming housing, guards routinely threaten to switch trans detainees to all-male units or to withhold gender-affirming hormone treatment as punishment for not complying with mundane rules, reports The City

The report also finds transgender people struggle for months to get medication, even in cases where their personal health care provider has deemed such treatment “medically necessary.” 

Other national studies have found that transgender people are more likely to be sexually or physically assaulted while in custody — underscoring the danger that can arise when housing incarcerated trans people in all-male units.

Task force members say in the report that there is a “need for culture change” within prisons regarding how prison staff treat trans, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary or intersex individuals. However, the task force also notes: “Large-scale culture change cannot be implemented…without appropriate measures for holding people accountable.”

As part of those accountability measures, the report calls for stricter disciplinary measures, not only against corrections officers who actively harm or abuse trans inmates, but those who fail to intervene. Prisons should ensure they are complying with federal laws, like the Prison Rape Elimination Act, that provide guidelines on how to reduce sexual assault of inmates in custody.

The task force report also recommends providing workshops for prisoners to know what rights they have while detained, continuing the Department of Corrections’ Pride Officers and Ambassadors initiative, and being intentional about pronoun usage for inmates, with a recommendation of utilizing pronoun pins on uniforms to foster a better atmosphere for trans and gender-nonconforming inmates. 

The task force has recommended providing corrections officials with additional training, including trauma-informed training, conflict resolution, and culturally-competent training on LGBTQ issues, to better prepare officers for how to deal with transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming prisoners.

The task force report makes numerous recommendations for policy changes to increase the safety of trans inmates, including recommendations for court officers on how to avoid misgendering trans prisoners. For example, one recommendation is that before arraignments, routine medical and mental health screenings should confirm a person’s correct gender identity and inform the court of any inaccurate gender markers on paperwork.

The report also calls on New York City to provide accessible and affordable housing to people released from custody, with a special focus on transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, and intersex individuals, as well as case management services.

The release of the report coincides with Correction Commissioner Louis Molina’s plan to reform the corrections system to avoid a potential federal takeover of the jails system. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Correction, Patrick Rocchio, said that the task force’s efforts and other suggestions to reform the system were welcome as part of a larger effort to support and protect people across the gender spectrum.

“Since 2018, we have been a national leader in housing TGNCNBI people in custody in a manner consistent with their health and safety, and their gender identities,” Rocchio said in a statement. But he added that “not all of the opinions, conclusions, or recommendations in the report reflect the views of the agency or correctional best practices.”

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