Beginning this month, transgender inmates at New York City's Rikers Island jail complex will have the option of entering a trans-only housing facility in order to better protect them from the general population, the Department of Corrections (DOC) announced last week.
The unit will house up to 30 trans women in dormitory-style rooms under the supervision of corrections officers specially trained in transgender issues, according to the DOC. Trans women were previously given the choice between joining the general male inmate population or entering solitary confinement.
"Just as adolescents, young adults, and mentally ill inmates have specialized needs, so do men who identify as women," DOC Commissioner Joe Ponte said in a statement. "Providing them with specialized housing and services is good policy and meaningful reform and is expected to reduce incidents involving these individuals while also leading to better long-term outcomes, including possible reductions in recidivism."
LGBT advocates said Monday that the unit is the result of years of pressure from trans inmates who had gone through the New York City jail system. Advocates said the unit is a first step toward addressing the many issues trans people face in the criminal justice system, including high rates of incarceration, violence, sexual assault, inadequate access to medical care, and harassment.
"Sexual violence is a day-to-day concern for transgender people behind bars and it takes place frequently in a context of harassment and dehumanizing treatment that is directed at them for being transgender," Harper Jean, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, told VICE News.
Jean said that trans women housed in men's prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other inmates. They also face issues of access to medication, getting a name change, being able to get a bra or appropriate undergarments, and abusive or unnecessary searches, which often take place in unnecessarily public places, she said.
Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU's LGBT Project, provided training sessions to corrections officers who might be working with trans inmates at Rikers.
'Sexual violence is a day-to-day concern for transgender people behind bars.'
"It was a two-hour training and we went through the basic terminology on who trans people are, why they are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, especially trans women of color, and preconceived biases, thinking they're all sex workers or that there is something inherently deviant in being transgender," Strangio told VICE News.
The ACLU and the Silvia Rivera Law Project worked together to train about 100 officers, advising them on the issues transgender women face behind bars — including lack of access to hormones and other medical care — and then hammering home that it is their legal responsibility to not harm transgender inmates, and to prevent conditions that make it more likely a trans inmate will be harmed.
Not all officers in the training were receptive to the ACLU's and SRLP's ideas.
"We encountered some challenges," Strangio said. "It does concern me on some level that people can't sit through a two-hour training without laughing about the very existence of trans people."
"But you can identify the people who are not equipped to staff a unit for trans people, and identify the people who can do their job duties," he added.
Notably, the housing unit at Rikers is only for trans women, not trans men, who will still be housed in the general women's population or held voluntarily in solitary confinement. There has been some attempt at housing both trans genders together, but the prison firmly opposed that idea, Strangio said.
Much of the advocacy done around trans inmate issues has focused on trans women, sometimes contributing to the false assumption that trans men would prefer to remain in women's prisons because they are safer.
"People assume there are not as many trans men in jail, which is not true, or that they not as vulnerable, which is not true," Strangio said. "Most people assume that trans men want to stay in women's jails, and that has not been my experience when I've been speaking with trans men," he added, noting that about half of trans men want to stay in the women's side, just as about half of trans women want to stay in the men's side.
"Trans men or trans-masculine people, whether they're butch or otherwise masculine, are targeted for engaging in regular sexual behavior or for being sexually aggressive, and are being ticketed for anything they do because they're gay and/or masculine appearing," Strangio said.
Both Harper and Strangio emphasized that one of the biggest challenges facing transgender inmates is that they are disproportionately incarcerated in the first place. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, nearly one in six transgender people reported being incarcerated at least once. An astonishing 47 percent of black and transgender individuals reported experiences with incarceration.
"Being in prison — that's the number one issue facing trans people in prison, it's being in prison," Jean said. "This is a function of poverty, of family rejection, of employment discrimination, homelessness, police profiling. We have a phrase: 'Walking while trans.' It's a function of our sentencing laws that we put people away for a long time for nonviolent offenses."
"I can't talk about the conditions trans people face in prisons without acknowledging that they're way more likely to end up in prison," she said.
Strangio called the creation of the Rikers trans housing unit an "important but by no means final step." Both he and Jean said that more work remains to be done in jails across the country.
"The issue of trans people in jail settings is becoming more visible, in part because of Orange Is The New Black, in part because of increased visibility in general," Strangio said. "So one question is going to be, 'How can you keep people safe?'"
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