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NYC jails are failing to 'safely and humanely' house transgender inmates, report says

The majority of trans and gender-nonconforming people in the city’s jails are kept in housing that doesn’t align with their gender identities, the report found.
A Department of Corrections bus, used to transport prisoners, drives up to the entrance of the bridge that connects to Rikers Island, January 15, 2022 in Queens, N.Y.
A Department of Corrections bus used to transport prisoners drives up to the entrance of the bridge that connects to Rikers Island in Queens, N.Y., on Jan. 15.Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images file

New York City’s jails are failing to safely and humanely house transgender inmates, according to a new report that’s calling for a “systemic overhaul” of the city’s Department of Correction policies. 

The 146-page report, which was years in the making, identified shortcomings in housing and mental health services for trans, nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people in the city’s jails as well as the systemic misgendering of this population at every level of the criminal justice system. 

The report — which includes recommendations to reform intake and re-entry processes, as well as housing and mental health services — was the first issued by the Task Force on Issues Faced by Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming, Non-Binary and Intersex People in Custody. The task force was convened in April 2019, following years of pleas from advocates. It consists of 19 members from more than a dozen government agencies and advocacy organizations. 

The task force first convened just two months before the high-profile death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a trans woman who died at a jail on Rikers Island in June of that year. In the case of Cubilette-Polanco’s death, guards waited an hour-and-a-half before calling for help after she had an epileptic seizure, surveillance footage showed. This prompted a wrongful death lawsuit that resulted in the largest settlement ever over an inmate’s death at Rikers.

The task force’s report, released Monday, shows the majority of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the city’s jail system are kept in housing that’s not consistent with their gender identity, despite a policy adopted in 2018 allowing inmates to choose their housing based on their gender identity and the creation of a Special Considerations Unit, which houses inmates at heightened risk of sexual victimization. The report further recommends that people in custody are not transferred out of housing that aligns with their gender identity as a form of punishment. 

The new research also found that, during screenings, people who are transgender, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary or intersex are often not given special forms that could potentially place them in the SCU, resulting in severe underreporting of the amount of trans, nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people in custody. While the task force said it could only be “reasonably certain” of the identities of 41 noncisgender inmates, 63% of them were in housing that was not consistent with their gender identity, the report found.

Policies that make it possible for inmates to request housing that aligns with their gender identity are not consistently shared with those in police custody, according to the task force report, and because housing in the jail system is only arranged according to male and female gender identities, many inmates must “make a decision that cannot reflect their full gender identity.”

“Housing [trans, nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming] people in the NYC jail systems leads to a dangerous deterioration of their well-being,” the report reads. 

The report also paints a picture of a task force in disarray, describing strained relations among its members and representative organizations, and stating that only a small number of them have diligently attended meetings. 

Trans, nonbinary, intersex, gender-nonconforming "and/or formerly incarcerated Task Force members spent significant time providing impromptu and unpaid ‘trans 101’ lessons to many other Task Force members when disrespectful and dismissive actions occurred,” the report’s authors wrote.

The task force is mandated to keep meeting until 2024. 

A DOC spokesperson said in a statement to NBC News that while the agency recognizes transgender and gender-nonconforming inmates are at a higher risk of victimization, the city’s jail system is a “national leader” in housing transgender and gender-nonconforming inmates. 

“The task force did not share the final version of the report with the department, and not all of the opinions, conclusions, or recommendations in the report reflect the views of the agency or correctional best practices,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “We remain committed to working with (the transgender, gender-nonconforming,  nonbinary and intersex) community to improve outcomes for those who become justice involved.”

Among dozens of recommendations, the task force calls for a significant culture change at the DOC. 

“The Department of Correction must realign itself with its own mission and set of values through a reconfiguration of staffing and accountability procedures,” the report says.

Melania Brown, the sister of Cubilette-Polanco, said Wednesday that the report’s findings validate the activism work that she and others have done to highlight the experience of transgender inmates held in Rikers. 

Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco.
Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco.Courtesy of Melania Brown

“If they had done this three years ago, I truly believe my sister would have been alive today,” Brown said.

Brown said Cubilette-Polanco, who was 27 and living with epilepsy and schizophrenia when she died, should have been properly evaluated for her mental health instead of being placed inside a restrictive housing unit at Rikers, where she died of an epileptic seizure. She had been arrested on misdemeanor assault charges and held on $500 bail dating back to a 2017 prostitution charge — a case that LGBTQ activists say was an example of the dehumanization transgender women face behind bars.

“There are a lot of people to blame in my sister’s death,” Brown said, “and I believe it hasn’t gotten better for transgender and nonconforming humans. It’s still the same.” 

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