Advocates renew push to protect incarcerated trans people in New York

Makyyla Holland, 25, filed a lawsuit that prompted the Broome County Jail to implement policies for the treatment of LGBTQ people in custody.
Makyyla Holland, 25, filed a lawsuit that prompted the Broome County Jail to implement policies for the treatment of LGBTQ people in custody.
Michael O’Neal/New York Civil Liberties Union

Advocates are renewing their calls to protect trans people in custody in New York State jails and prisons from discrimination based on their gender identity and expression. 

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF) on Dec. 7 sent a second letter to sheriffs across New York State asking them to “adopt strong written policies to avoid unlawful discrimination against transgender people in [their] custody and to promote safety.” The letter states the policies should be consistent with ones implemented in Broome and Steuben Counties, which were written following two separate lawsuits brought on behalf of trans women who were discriminated against while in custody.  

The letter follows an Oct. 23 letter making the same request. Since the first letter was sent out, the NYCLU learned that jails in four additional counties — Cayuga, Ontario, Warren and Yates — had adopted policies consistent with Broome and Steuben Counties. 

Bobby Hodgson, director of LGBTQ rights litigation at the NYCLU, told Gay City News the second letter was “continuing on with that momentum, and trying to saturate the state with awareness and knowledge of the resources that are out there.” Since the letter was sent, he has learned that Erie County, which includes Buffalo, has adopted a similar policy. 

In August, the Broome County Jail in Binghamton agreed to adopt a written anti-discrimination policy for trans people in their custody as part of a $160,000 settlement following a 2021 lawsuit brought by the NYCLU on behalf of Makyyla Holland, a trans woman. Holland said the county sheriff’s office discriminated against her on the basis of her transgender status, sex and disability. She said she was placed in custody with men and in isolation, was beaten, faced illegal strip searches, and was not allowed to take necessary medications. 

“When they found out I was trans I instantly was a target,” Holland said in a video shared by the NYCLU. “I felt like the jail was not equipped for a trans woman, and definitely a trans woman of color. … When the jail denied me my hormone therapy and my depression medication I felt like my life was just being snatched from me; I felt like there was no need to live.” 

As part of its settlement, the Broome County jail agreed to adopt several policies, including to house individuals consistent with their gender identity; respect the gender identity of people in custody, including pronoun use and names; provide clothing and toiletry in accordance with gender identity and supply gender-affirming items such as wigs; and provide medical care without discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.

In Steuben County, similar policy changes were enacted following a lawsuit brought by Jena Faith, a trans woman who was housed in the jail’s male facilities and denied prescription hormone treatment.

Hodgson said it is common for trans people in custody in New York to face discrimination based on their identity.

“All too often transgender folks are not placed in gender-congruent housing, even when they are specifically requesting it and explaining why it’s necessary for their safety,” he said. 

Hodgson added that trans people often face strip searches by people whose gender is not the same as their own.

“Very often this is transgender women, overwhelmingly transgender women of color, who are forced to be, for example, stripped by male guards, and this creates safety issues and is incredibly invasive,” Hodgson said. 

“Having a good policy on paper can only go so far, but it’s an incredibly important first step,” he said, “because a lot of the discrimination and mistreatment that so many of our clients have experienced often came about because there was no policy, and … no education … around what it means to treat a person in a non-discriminatory way.”  

A 2022 survey of 44 incarcerated people conducted by Takeroot Justice and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project found that trans and gender non-conforming people in New York State prisons are commonly subjected to discrimination. 

In an emailed statement to Gay City News, Thomas Mitchell, counsel for the New York State Sheriff’s Association, said, “We have sent all Sheriffs a copy of the Broome and Steuben County policies, and have also obtained and shared policies from other counties as well. We have also discussed the issue during some regular conference calls and meetings with Sheriffs and their jail staff.” 

Mitchell added, “Sheriffs do not want any persons subject to unlawful discrimination, and we have suggested that they review the Broome and Steuben policies, as well as others that we obtained, to help determine what policy best protects all persons committed to their custody by a court or other agency.” 

A bill in the New York State Legislature, the Gender Identity Respect, Dignity and Safety Act, would require jails and prisons across the state to provide people in custody with housing consistent to their gender identity and prohibit discrimination. The legislation, supported by the NYCLU, is led by State Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Nily Rozic.

“Statewide codification of the specific rights of transgender and gender-non conforming, non-binary, and intersex people in custody is absolutely necessary to make those protections uniform,” Hodgson said, and to “further reduce harm across the state for people who don’t live in one of these counties that has adopted a policy like this.” 

Hodgson said trans people already have “broad protections that prohibit a jail from discriminating against a person on the basis of gender identity” based on both state and federal laws. The state legislation is necessary, he said, “because it avoids any ambiguity and provides specific enumerated protections that lay out in detail exactly what should be going on and has to be going on in prisons, jails, and lockups.”