Council bill aims to improve housing of TGNCNBI people in city custody

Councilmember Keith Powers is the lead sponsor of the housing bill.
Councilmember Keith Powers of Manhattan is spearheading a bill to improve the housing process for TGNCNBI people in custody in New York.
NYC Council/William Alatriste

In an effort to protect transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and intersex (TGNCNBI) people in custody, city lawmakers introduced legislation on September 29 requiring the Department of Correction (DOC) to review the sexual victimization risk of every incarcerated person and allow people to appeal housing assignments when they undergo intake or transfers to other facilities.

Specifically, the bill would require the department to assess people based on whether they have a mental, physical, or developmental disability; their age; physical build; whether they have been incarcerated before; whether their criminal history is non-violent; whether they have prior convictions for sex offenses or have experienced sexual victimization; their own perception of vulnerability; and whether they are being detained for immigration purposes, according to the legislation’s text.

The bill comes during a deadly year for incarcerated individuals in New York City, where 16 people have died in custody. Three years ago, Layleen Polanco was neglected by guards at Rikers and died of a medical emergency in a case that sparked outrage about the treatment of trans people in city jails.

Notably, the bill follows the release of a report on the findings of a task force on TGNCNBI people in city custody as well as reporting by the non-profit news outlet about the city’s failure to properly classify trans people in custody.

The bill directs the DOC to create a multi-step process for TGNCNBI individuals to appeal denials of their requests for housing accommodations in the context of their gender identity. The bill calls for the establishment of a review board that would evaluate cases and forward the appeals to the Board of Correction, which would then provide opinions within 24 hours. The review board would then make determinations within 48 hours of receiving appeals and opinions.

The bill is led by second-term Manhattan Councilmember Keith Powers, who previously served as chair of the Criminal Justice Committee.

“No one should be forced into housing that is inconsistent with their gender identity — it’s as simple as that,” Powers said in a written statement. “This bill will ensure that transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex New Yorkers are not only protected, but treated with decency and care in our city’s jails. As violence against these marginalized communities only heightens, it’s past time we guaranteed gender-appropriate housing in custody.”

Other key Council leaders — including LGBTQIA+ Caucus Co-Chair Tiffany Cabán of Queens and Criminal Justice Committee Chair Carlina Rivera of Manhattan — are co-sponsoring the bill, along with Shahana Hanif of Brooklyn and Gale A. Brewer of Manhattan.

Cabán, a former public defender, told Gay City News in a 2019 interview that one of her trans clients who not afford bail was housed in a jail with men. Cabán said at the time that her client started to grow facial hair after authorities refused to provide her with hormones.

“In the best of cases, Rikers Island is a hellhole of misery and despair, where torture is standard and death is routine,” Cabán said in a written statement on September 29. “There is absolutely no reason the city should be intensifying the violence even further by forcing people into housing that is inappropriate for their gender. Ultimately, we need to decarcerate Rikers Island, demolish the jail, and invest in the economic and social stability of the neighborhoods to which currently-incarcerated New Yorkers will return, but in the meantime, we absolutely owe our transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex neighbors in DOC custody a guarantee of gender-appropriate housing.”