The majority of transgender inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island jail will be temporarily transferred to two state-run facilities outside the city, state leaders confirmed Wednesday.
The move is a response to a severe staffing shortage at the eight-jail complex, which has worsened its already deteriorating conditions and led many inmates to lose access to basic resources. To ease the burden, approximately 230 inmates will be taken to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and Taconic Correctional Facility, both of which are in Westchester County. Inmates with pending immigration-related matters will remain at Rikers.
Governor Kathy Hochul said the crisis at Rikers is “grave and complex and, thus, requires bold action from all levels of government to deliver change.” “I am especially heartened that the State is able to assist some of the most vulnerable populations on Rikers,” she stated in a press release.
But some activists strongly criticized the plan, saying it does nothing to address the issues trans inmates already face in detention. Former Rikers detainee Anisha Sabur, who is part of a grassroots campaign to end solitary confinement, said transferring these vulnerable populations will do nothing to improve prison conditions.
“Moving them from one deplorable facility to another deplorable facility,” Sabur told local Fox affiliate WNYW. “It makes no sense.”
Tina Luongo, who leads the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense practice, said the group is considering a lawsuit against Hochul and Mayor Bill de Blasio over the transfers. She told the Associated Press that the move “will create new harms” for detainees by “disrupting their access to due process, their children, families, and support networks.” She predicted trans inmates could be cut off from resources they receive at Rikers, such as gender-affirming care and guards who have received LGBTQ+ competency training.
Hochul promised in her statement, however, that trans inmates would have access to the same services they currently receive, including hormone replacement therapy.
Rikers currently has approximately 47 inmates who identify as transgender, according to Spectrum News. That estimate may be an undercount, given that many prisoners may feel unsafe disclosing their gender identity in fear of violence. The facility typically holds around 10,000 inmates in total.
Many advocates have expressed additional concern that the state-run facilities are 40 miles outside the city, which they say will create significant barriers for prisoners who need ready access to attorneys and court hearings, as the majority of detainees in Rikers are currently awaiting trial. New York City has committed to providing twice-daily transportation for family members to both facilities.
At least one organization, however, has voiced support for the move. The Women’s Community Justice Association, which has led a campaign to close down the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail at Rikers, praised the move as a good first step toward the end goal of decarceration.
“This has been a place of incredible trauma for our mothers, daughters and sisters,” executive director Sharon White-Harrigan told Gothamist. “Today the healing begins.”
Since the pandemic began, New York jails have been plagued with staff shortages that multiple reports claim have caused the jail to devolve into chaos. Over a third of officers in city facilities did not show up for work last month, as the Times reports. Twelve people in NYC jails have died this year, the highest number since 2015, with at least five of the deaths reported as suicides.
The unrest is likely to have a disproptionate effect on members of the LGBTQ+ community, who are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than straight, cisgender people. Queer people are three times more likely than their straight counterparts to be serving time behind bars, according to the research and advocacy organization Prison Policy Intiative (PPI). Trans women of color are particularly vulnerable to incarceration: 47% of Black, trans women have been housed in a jail or prison at some point in their lives.
LGBTQ+ inmates are also subjected to disproportionate levels of mistreatment behind bars. They are nearly five times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a staff member and almost six times as likely to be sexually assaulted by another prisoner, per PPI.
Several cases of anti-LGBTQ+ abuse at Rikers have gained national attention in recent years. In 2019, Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro Latina trans woman, died during a seizure while in solitary confinement. Video of the incident shows the guards, who were reportedly aware she had a seizure disorder, laughing at Cubilette-Polanco as she died in her cell. Her family won a record $5.9 million settlement last year after suing the city.
In September, a gay Black man named Esias “Izzie” Johnson was found dead in his cell after allegedly complaining of stomach pain for several days. His family has accused Rikers of medical neglect, and the death is reportedly under investigation.
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