Rikers Jail to Open Transgender Unit

Mariah Lopez, the trans activist who first spoke publicly about the new transgender unit planned for Rikers Island. | DONNA ACETO

Mariah Lopez, the trans activist who first spoke publicly about the new transgender unit planned for Rikers Island. | DONNA ACETO

Rikers Island, the scandal-plagued New York City jail much in the news these days for reports of violence against inmates, is trying to make some progress in its treatment of transgender inmates with the opening this fall of a dedicated transgender unit that some are saying is the first of its kind in the country.

Mariah Lopez, a transgender activist with experience as an inmate at Rikers, broke the story on her Facebook page on July 30, writing that the “the country’s first exclusively transgender inmate facility” would open within days. Lopez, who is the executive director of STARR, the Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform, wrote that it was in response to “abuses so severe and taboo, that most people (the general public and elected officials) believe these ‘practices’ to be outlawed, and/ or no longer practiced.”

Lopez wrote that the “abuses include strip-searches by officers; beating [and] frequent rapes of Trans individuals while incarcerated throughout the United States,” citing Amnesty International’s 2003 report, “Stonewalled.”

Advocates get city to respond to “hideous” treatment of MTF inmates

She wrote that “Rikers closed the ‘Gay/ Lesbian/ Trans’ housing units over a decade ago, despite widespread criticism from advocates who argued that the units were necessary to keep Trans and Gay inmates safe.”

In December 2005, the city’s Department of Correction announced it was phasing out a special unit that had housed vulnerable gay and transgender inmates since the 1970s.

John Boston, director of the New York City Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, said that a coalition of groups including Legal Aid, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Lambda Legal “began discussions two years ago” on the plight of “transgender prisoners, some of whom were subjected to hideous abuse from other prisoners and staff.”

Boston said there were discussions with the Bloomberg administration about this crisis, but they were eventually just “stopped.” “Under this administration [Mayor Bill de Blasio’s], they’ve taken a different attitude,” Boston added. “They understand the necessity of safe, separate housing and are going to provide it.”

Boston said that his understanding is that the unit is going to be in the North Infirmary Command, “which is not limited to medical housing.” It will be for transwomen.

“The largest number of problems was with putting transwomen in male facilities,” he said. “We told the Department of Correction that this is irredeemably dangerous and that they needed to provide a safe haven for those prisoners. We were told in the past that the ‘state of one’s genitals’ was determinative” of where you were placed.

A spokesperson for the Department of Correction confirmed on background that a dedicated unit is planned for the fall for biologically-born men who are transitioning to life as women, but that the department does not currently have plans for a female-to-male unit because there are not sufficient numbers to justify it. The spokesperson confirmed that the choice of whether to be assigned to the unit will be up to the transgender inmate.

Lopez is hopeful that this will mark a new era for transgender people in the criminal justice system, affecting more than just the Department of Correction.

“Trans people are more likely to be arrested for crimes they didn’t commit,” she said, adding that many plead guilty in deals “just to get out of [Rikers and be moved to longer term incarceration]. The Department of Correction will now do everything they can to connect trans people to social services both in custody and when they leave. This is the first time that trans people have been treated in such a fair manner by Corrections since the founding of the city.”