Commish Discusses Rikers Gay Unit

Corrections department sits down with advocates over housing needs of gay, trans inmates

The specialized unit for gay and transgendered inmates at the city’s Rikers Island jail is being closed by attrition, admitting no new detainees since November 28 of last year. Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn met with advocates from the gay and transgendered communities on January 12 in an encounter that both sides described as “good,” but that left some advocates wary of Horn’s plan to deal with vulnerable detainees without the benefit of gay and trans-specific housing. The group of advocates is working on a list of suggestions that the commissioner pledged he would review.

“I’m worried that people are going to be arrested tonight, be put into the general population, be raped or injured or die,” said D. Horowitz, a law fellow at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project who specializes in incarcerated people of transgender experience. Horowitz recounted stories of such individuals who have been “sexually assaulted, forced to perform blow jobs, and beat up.”

Deputy Commissioner Tom Antenen told Gay City News that there have been “no such problems” since his department began closing down the unit.

The specialized unit has been around since the late 1970s and can accommodate up to 150 detainees.

The story of its closing was leaked to The New York Times on December 30 and set off alarm bells in the advocacy community with talk of giving detainees a choice between the general population and 23-hour lockdown. Horn told The Times that this unit was the only one that detainees were allowed to choose and it resulted in one “where people were predatory and people were vulnerable.”

Mariah Lopez, a transgendered woman affiliated with FIERCE!, or the Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment, a Lower Manhattan advocacy group for LGBT youth, was asked to leave the meeting with Horn because she has litigation pending against the department. Lopez said she did not experience the sorts of problems Horn spoke of in the Times story when she was a detainee in the unit, She asked, “If they felt [the unit] was important before, why not now?” Lopez also expressed concern about transgendered women being put on prison buses with 60 men.

At the meeting, Horn was said to lay out intermediate options between the stark choices of 23-hour lockdown or mixing into the general population.

“There are many avenues open to us where we can make housing decisions based on security evaluations,” said Antenen.

Carrie Davis, group services coordinator at the LGBT Community Center, had told The Times in December, “This is not a change for the benefit of the prisoners,” but for administrators. She called the January 12 meeting a “frank and open discussion,” but is concerned that the unit “was being closed prematurely and alternative housing hasn’t been arranged.”

Davis described statements made by a transgendered former detainee at the meeting.

“I think the commissioner really heard what she was saying and that he has concern for people in his care,” Davis said. “But his analysis of the

situation is flawed and he underestimates the danger that gender non-conforming detain-ees experience.” Davis said such inmates are “marked” for abuse by other prisoners.

Franklin Romeo, a Kirkland and Ellis Fellow at Lambda Legal who also attended, said, “I have concerns about getting rid of the gay housing unit now because I don’t see something in place right now that can compare with it. [Horn] asked the group for screening methods for vulnerable people entering jail. We’re working on some draft language.”

Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent his counsel, Anthony Crowell, to represent him. Also participating were two out gay City Human Rights Commissioners—Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force who recently rejoined the commission, and Jonathan Capehart, a former journalist and adviser to the mayor who is now a senior vice president at Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm.

Foreman, who has worked in the corrections system, said that Horn indicated that “he was committed to protecting vulnerable inmates and I thought that was positive that he asked for our suggestions on how to do that.”

The group is currently circulating a draft memorandum.

“The idea is to screen detainees on intake to really determine if they are vulnerable for any one of a number of factors and need separate housing,” Foreman said.

In response to a question, Capehart wrote in an e-mail, “It is my hope that the suggestions the group comes up with will address many of the issues the community has raised with regard to the closing of the unit.” He added, “I hope that in the end we just have a better program, and finally give transgendered inmates a place that will work better for them and provide for their safety.”

“We heard their concerns and we’re going to move forward,” said Antenen, noting that the unit is “down to very low numbers now” and that very few detainees are requesting it.