By Matt Katz, January 25, 2023

City officials are rolling back protections for transgender detainees, leaving them vulnerable to rape, beatings and discrimination at Rikers Island, members of the City Council and previously incarcerated LGBTQ+ individuals alleged at a hearing on Wednesday.

Testimony at the hearing centered around trans women and their allies who said they had been assigned to male units where they were assaulted, removed for medical treatment, and then brought back to the same units, where they faced attacks.

Correction Commissioner Louis Molina said an incarcerated person who identifies with a gender that differs from where they are housed can appeal to a team of jail officials who could transfer them to the Special Consideration Unit at the women’s jail at Rikers.

About 75% of those applications are approved, according to Molina, but people can be denied for unspecified “security reasons,” criminal history, or information that suggests they’re being deceitful about why they want to be transferred.

Councilmember Tiffany Cabán said such an approach is discriminatory because cisgender detainees don’t face the same scrutiny when housing considerations are being made. Housing that doesn’t match gender identity “has killed people,” Cabán said, “so we need you to do better.”

The hearing began with a moment of silence for Layleen Polanco, a trans woman who died in solitary confinement in 2019. Her name was repeatedly invoked during the hearing.

“DOC has continued to fail to provide safe and respectful housing, medical care and support, which has resulted in the tragic deaths of people like Layleen Polanco and countless others,” Councilmember Carlina Rivera said. “We are absolutely just enraged by the DOC’s lack of action.”

Molina defended his department.

“Our practices far exceed probably many of the jurisdictions in America,” he said.

Councilmembers showed their frustration with the lack of data that Molina brought to the hearing. He did not provide information on how many disciplinary cases had been brought against officers for violating policies intended to protect LGBTQ+ detainees. He also wouldn’t provide details about staff training for working with transgender detainees.

Earlier this week, news outlet The City published a story revealing that two of three employees in the correction department’s LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit recently quit in protest. Both worked under Molina, who was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams last year. The lone remaining employee did not attend Wednesday’s City Council hearing. Molina said the departures were simply reflective of larger attrition trends.

The City also reported that Molina shelved a proposed policy to align housing with trans detainees’ gender identities. And he forbade members of a task force, which last year issued a report criticizing correction operations on these issues, from touring the jails, as it had previously done.

The City Council is considering several bills that would expand rights afforded to transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary and intersex people. One would create a review board for housing assignments.

Another would allow detainees to choose the gender of their doctors. The Council is also considering a resolution to support a state bill that would require incarcerated people to be housed according to their gender identities rather than the gender of their birth.

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