Authorities in New York's Steuben County agreed to sweeping changes to its jail and prison policies after settling a discrimination lawsuit filed by a transgender inmate.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund and the firm BakerHostetler announced the settlement Wednesday as containing “one of the strongest jail or prison policies in the country protecting the rights of transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary and intersex people in custody” and called upon other jails around the country to use the policy as their own.
“The mistreatment of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in prison and jails is something that happens around the country and the state despite the fact that there are clear legal protections in place that prohibit this kind of treatment and discrimination against transgender folks,” Bobby Hodgson, a staff attorney at NYCLU, told NBC News.
“The work of changing what’s happening on the ground is about creating model policies like this one,” Hodgson continued, “and ensuring that other jurisdictions see they are successful and see them as a way forward.”
The plaintiff, Jena Faith, filed suit against Steuben County in 2019 alleging harassment and discrimination during a one-month pretrial detention. She settled her suit for $60,000 in damages and the agreement by Steuben County to overhaul its jail policy.
The policy touches upon preferred names, clothing, searches, grooming items, housing and health care for transgender and gender-nonconforming inmates.
David Brown, legal director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said the new trans prison policy “is a straightforward application of law and is perfectly consistent with all the reporting and record-keeping systems and all legal obligations that jails have in New York state.”
“We know it’s workable, and we know it can be applied in every county in the state,” Brown said, noting that the New York State Sheriff’s Association reviewed the agreement before it was finalized and that local authorities who ignore its guidance do so “at their own peril.”
“Every county in New York state is on notice that if practices fall below the level in this policy, then they are liable,” Brown said.
Transgender people — women in particular — face unique risks and challenges in prisons and jails, NBC News has previously reported. Trans women inmates are almost always housed alongside men and some states are seeking to deny their gender-related care. More than a third of trans inmates experienced at least one incident of “sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the past 12 months," according to a 2015 Department of Justice report.
“Women like Jena lie at the intersection of our country’s apathy about a violent prison system and the erasure of violence against trans people more broadly, fueling a political and social environment that falsely accepts such abuse as inevitable,” Gillian Branstetter, a transgender advocate and spokesperson for the National Women’s Law Center, said.
“Rather than viewing these horrors as the natural state of affairs, prison officials have a legal duty and all of us have a moral duty to uphold the rights of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
For her part, Faith said “it feels really good” to know that she and her legal team “actually came up with a plan and had them set it in place to ensure the safety of all LGBTQIA people, especially those who are transgender and nonbinary and gender nonconforming.”
“We don’t need anything again like what happened in Rikers with Layleen Polanco,” she said, offering her “deepest sympathies” to the victim's family.
Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a transgender woman, died in June 2019 while in solitary confinement at New York's Rikers Island jail, where she had been placed over the objections of at least one doctor. This past June, it was announced that 17 New York City Department of Correction officers would be disciplined for their conduct surrounding her death.