updated 12/29/2005 7:44:52 PM ET 2005-12-30T00:44:52

One of the nation’s few jail dormitories specifically for gay or transgender prisoners is closing on Rikers Island, prompting complaints from some activists who say it is a needed safe haven.

The unit stopped accepting new inmates last month at the direction of Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn. With only 56 inmates left in the unit Thursday, it could be shut entirely within the next few weeks, the department said.

Plans call for the specialized unit to be replaced with a new protective custody system that would be available to prisoners who feel threatened, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The change has alarmed members of some civil liberties and gay rights groups that note the new housing would likely be more restrictive than the old unit.

“People should not be punished for wanting to be safe,” said D. Horowitz, a legal fellow at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

Opened in late 1970's
The unit, reserved for prisoners in pretrial detention, opened on the city’s island prison complex in the late 1970s to assuage complaints about abusive treatment of homosexuals. It has space for 146 prisoners but was holding 126 when it began emptying on Nov. 28.

Correction Department spokesman Tom Antenen said the unit, which held only a fraction of the gay inmates at Rikers, was being done away with as part of a broader restructuring of the jail’s prisoner classification system.

Jail administrators have no intention of ignoring Rikers inmates who say they feel threatened because of their sexuality, Antenen said.

“If that is the case, and they need to be protected from the general population, then we will endeavor to provide the best possible security,” he said. That could include a “23-hour lockdown” or it might involve moving them to a different city facility.

Eighteen groups sent a letter to Horn on Thursday asking him to reconsider, including the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Special units are rare
Specialized housing units for gay prisoners are rare in the United States, although jails in a few other places do have them, officials said. The Federal Bureau of Prisons does not maintain such units anywhere in the country, nor do state prisons in New York.

Transgender activist Mariah Lopez said she knows firsthand the difference between the specialized unit and regular housing at Rikers, having been imprisoned in both on prostitution charges.

Outside of the protective unit, Lopez said she was subject to taunts and physical abuse, while inside guards and prisoners alike are “generally more sensitized” to issues of gender identity.

“I can’t conceive a Rikers Island without gay housing,” Lopez said.

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