How a Rikers Unit That Protects Trans Women Fell Apart
Tamera Harrison reported being groped repeatedly by a detainee in a male housing unit. DOC officials ignored or refused her transfer requests for weeks, despite multiple self-harm incidents.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
A decade ago, New York City set out to lead the nation in efforts to support incarcerated trans people. Now detainees tell THE CITY that they are stranded in all-male housing units, subject to physical violence and sexual assaults. This story is published in partnership with THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.
In December 2021, as Christmas was approaching, a trio of trans women decided to bring some holiday cheer to their dorm at the Rose M. Singer Center, a jail complex on the northern edge of Rikers Island. They were going to have a ball.
The stage was nothing special, a small beige floor in front of rows of cold metal benches in the dorm’s common area. But the room had good light. From one window where the sun crept in, the women could look out and watch the planes soaring in and out of LaGuardia.
The decoration materials on offer were limited, but they found what they could. Earlier in June, they’d made blue, pink and rainbow posters for allied corrections employees to carry in their place in the NYC Pride march — and they hung these up on the jail’s walls. One sign, a stenciled image outlining the figures of several trans women in their dorm, celebrated the group in big navy letters, “THE Girls from 2 south.”
In the week leading up to the ball, Venus, Monica and Mimi practiced their dance routines and lip syncs using speakers brought in specially for them. The noise was infectious. Women from across the hall started watching to get a sneak peek of the show, a diversion from the usual mix of boredom and violence on the island.
On the day of the performance, Venus, a Latina woman with bleached blond hair, was clearly the star. She draped a jail blanket across her legs to serve as a skirt and knotted her white facility T-shirt into a crop top. In one hand, she shook a pink streamer. Somehow, she’d even found glitter.
Her turn at the Christmas ball at Rikers was made possible by a recent and unlikely ally for incarcerated trans women in New York City: the Department of Correction’s own LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit. It was employees of that team, never more than a handful of policy experts and social workers, who had helped make the Pride posters and organize the show.
Kels Savage, then a services coordinator with the unit, filmed Venus and the two other women as they vogued and sang, while staffers and other detainees clapped along from the benches. “I remember thinking, you know, ‘I’m glad that they at least had this experience at Rikers, and they weren’t tortured, or harmed,’” she said.
As Savage pressed a button on her phone ending her recording, a sense of relief flooded over her.
Monica had been really nervous about her song, but in the end she killed it. Mimi, who was normally very shy, did a lip sync in front of the crowd. They had pulled the whole thing off in just a week.
Savage saved the video, which she planned to upload so that the other incarcerated women at the Rose M. Singer Center could watch it on their tablets. She had no idea that the holiday celebration would be the last time she’d ever get to support the trans community of Rikers Island like that.
Kels Savage resigned in protest from her job as service coordinator with the LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit at Rikers in April 2022.
Photo: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY
Just weeks later, Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, swept into the mayor’s office promising a pro-law enforcement agenda that included supporting the old guard that had long decided how things ran on the island. Adams replaced the reform-minded jails commissioner Vincent Schiraldi with his own pick, Louis Molina, whose administration immediately pushed out top department leaders supportive of the LGBTQ+ unit and shelved a draft policy directive aimed at getting more trans and gender-nonconforming detainees into gender-aligned housing.
This institutional reversal has stranded numerous trans and gender-nonconforming detainees in dangerous, male housing units for weeks or months on end, subjecting many to egregious forms of physical and sexual violence, according to dozens of internal emails, Department of Correction records, and interviews with more than 20 people who work or live in city jails, including current and former corrections staffers, incarcerated trans women, jail guards and attorneys.
For the fledgling LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit, Molina’s change in direction proved devastating. Their programming for the community came to a halt, and they lost their say in critical housing decisions, jail insiders say.
In just six months under the new administration, two members of the tight-knit unit quit in protest, leaving the team with just one employee.
Those two staffers and several other former corrections employees, disturbed by how the agency reversed course on trans rights, are sharing their stories here for the first time.
The fact that Rikers Island — a toxic landfill that shields incalculable amounts of violence and mental illness from the view of most New Yorkers — could have once hosted a holiday ball reflected nearly a decade of work by city officials to protect incarcerated LGBTQ+ people.
A focal point of that work has been trans women — and for good reason. Nationwide, trans women are usually incarcerated with cis men and are many times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other people behind bars.
So in 2015, city corrections officials opened what was then called the Transgender Housing Unit. Many detainees didn’t know about or couldn’t get into the dorm, which could only house a few dozen, but nonetheless it was one of just a handful of such specialized facilities across the country.
Three years later, spurred by LGBTQ+ advocates, the mayor’s office announced that the Department of Correction would house incarcerated people consistent with their gender identity.
“It’s the city’s responsibility to protect the rights and safety of all New Yorkers, and that means protecting transgender individuals in city jails as well,” then-Mayor Bill de Blasio declared at the time. “New York City is one of the first major cities to commit to taking this step, and it’s crucial to ensuring all our facilities are welcoming and safe for all New Yorkers, no matter their gender identity.”
The next spring, as hundreds protested the death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old trans woman who died in solitary confinement while at Rikers, the Department of Correction announced the launch of what was then known as the LGBTQ+ Initiatives Unit, headed by Elizabeth Munsky, a lesbian with years of experience working on gender violence, youth initiatives and LGBTQ+ issues for the mayor’s office and nonprofits.
Over the next two years, Munsky and her team threw themselves into the job. They hosted resource fairs at a gym on Rikers so that LGBTQ detainees could connect with services for re-entry to life after jail and find lawyers to advocate on their behalf. They organized a staff “ambassadors” program, giving dozens of guards rainbow “ally” pins to wear and teaching those who were interested how they could support the community.
The Department of Correction logo for their “pride ambassadors” program in 2021.
As Munsky gained more staffers and clout in the agency, she also fought, with increasing success, to place and keep trans women in housing areas of their choosing.
“Hiring Liz did make a difference,” said Deborah Lolai, an attorney who supervises the Bronx Defenders’ LBGTQ Defense Project. “Because she was able to directly advocate within DOC in ways that we were not able to do. She had access to information that we did not have access to.”
But even in the de Blasio era, Munsky and her team didn’t have it easy. As civilians on an island run by an entrenched, conservative bureaucracy, they faced daily conflicts with uniformed jail staff. Nonetheless, by cultivating the support of progressive agency higher-ups, they were able to make steady inroads.
When Kels Savage started her job as an LGBTQ+ services coordinator on Rikers Island in May of 2021, she had to learn the fundamentals of a culture that was segregated from the world she came from.
On an island of Black and Latino guards and detainees, Savage, a 5-foot, 5-inch white woman with a short blond side part, stuck out. “A lot of people would be like, ‘Yeah, I talked to the little white girl, or the little girl? Boy?,” she recalled, chuckling.
Despite such differences, Savage, a queer cis woman who’d moved to New York from South Jersey after being kicked out of her home, found that if she didn’t bullshit, people respected her.
Touring the jails, she learned fast: how to walk from one unit to another, how to decode the martial language used at roll call, how to pretend to be a normal social worker in a general population unit so that the trans detainee she was actually there to interview would not be outed.
Much of the work was rewarding. She remembers helping detainees at Rose M. Singer paint a pro-LGBTQ+ mural, a paneled wall of colorful stripes that curved behind stenciled black figures raising their fists in power. She worked with bail funds and public defenders to get LBGTQ+ detainees off the island and into alternative housing and treatment programs. She took part in the “Ambassadors Program,” sparking honest conversations with correction officers about their understanding and views of the LGBTQ+ community on the island.
In May 2021, staff and incarcerated people painted a pro-LGBTQ+ mural at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island.
Photo: Obtained by THE CITY
But her unit also faced resistance.
Much of the jail’s middle management often disagreed with her team on housing decisions for trans women. Management fought their applications to get into the women’s jail, sometimes worried that the applicants were really just cis men eager to access cis women, Savage recalled.
One female captain at Rikers who spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity pointed out that last year Bronx prosecutors convicted a trans woman for sexually assaulting another female detainee. “I’ve been there that long and I’ve seen some of them really change,” she said, referring to trans women. “I’m going to say 80% of them really tries to. They take their hormones and they go for the surgery. And then you have the other 20%, like ‘Mhm-mmm, no, you’re just there to take advantage of the females.’”
Savage saw it differently. “It was definitely transphobic,” she said, reflecting on some of the concerns she heard from staff. “Constantly the refrain was ‘At the end of the day, that’s a man.’ I’ve heard that so many times.”
The majority of the frontline staff “see a lot of transgender people, a lot of transgender women as men,” agreed one high-ranking former DOC official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing concerns about professional reprisal.
Throughout 2021, the LGBTQ+ team and custody management leaders fought over a draft directive, reviewed by THE CITY, that would have shifted more power in housing decisions to the LGBTQ+ team, and forced wardens to create separate spaces for LGBTQ+ detainees who were not accepted into Rose M. Singer.
In Rikers’ paramilitary culture, mid-level administrators could not abide the idea of losing control over their facilities to the director of an LGBTQ+ unit, contended Moe Sheehan, a former deputy director of investigations at the Department of Correction who frequently went to bat for the LGBTQ+ team.
“The uniformed staff do not want you to listen to a civilian,” said Sheehan. “And that’s what this was. This was a civilian in charge who could tell them what they had to do in their facility.”
In this struggle between civilians and corrections staff, top department leaders, elevated by de Blasio’s commissioners, proved to be instrumental allies. At least once or twice a month, the LGBTQ+ unit had to call on them to intercede and weigh in on housing decisions for trans and gender-nonconforming detainees they felt were in danger, Savage and the former high-ranking official recall.
On the morning of December 22, 2021, for example, Savage’s team learned about a trans woman, stuck in a men’s jail, who had reported being sexually assaulted. Munsky emailed numerous jail administrators, demanding her speedy transfer. After hearing nothing back for more than an hour, Munsky followed up with a report about yet another trans rape victim, who also needed to be moved out of male housing and who could not communicate because her tablet had been seized by her assailant.
Five minutes later, Patricia Feeney, the Department of Correction’s deputy commissioner of quality, assurance and integrity, finally replied. But Feeney did not mention the rape allegations or transfer requests.
“Was it reported to the facility that Ms. [NAME REDACTED] cannot access her tablet?,” the veteran administrator asked.
“It’s like they didn’t hear what we were saying,” Savage said of the response. “This person has been abused. This person does not have the power to report anything because even their tablet has been hijacked by their assailant. And it’s like, ‘Well, why don’t they report it to the facility if that’s not working?’ It’s like, ‘Did you not hear anything we said?’”
Feeney did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Department of Correction declined to comment on individual cases cited in this story.
The next day, with the two trans women still trapped in male housing facilities, Dana Wax, the then-commissioner’s chief of staff and the unit’s most powerful ally in the department, weighed in, demanding follow-up and noting that one of the women’s attorneys had filed a complaint.
Over the next eight hours, Wax, one of the highest-ranking figures in the agency, sent five check-in and follow-up emails, pushing the officials to act and keep her apprised of their progress.
At 8:19 p.m., a corrections staffer confirmed to Wax that one of the trans women had been safely moved to the Rose M. Singer Center, emails show. According to a source familiar with the matter, the other woman was transferred to Rose M. Singer more than a week later.
The transfers were just a few of the hard-fought victories the LGBTQ+ unit was able to achieve with receptive allies at the top of the department.
“Although our team was beyond skeptical about working for the DOC, we did start to truly believe we were part of something making real change,” Savage recalls. “There were people in positions of power that sincerely had our backs.”
Just a few days before the Rikers ball, Mayor-elect Eric Adams stood before a line of cameras at Brooklyn Borough Hall. At his side were the corrections union bosses he had invited there that day.
“Just as I’m telling my cops, ‘I have your backs when you do the right thing,’ I’m saying to this union I have your back,” Adams said, making clear that the back-the-blue agenda he’d run on extended to jail guards at Rikers. Many guards had spent the previous months calling out sick, paralyzing the reform agenda of de Blasio’s jails commissioner Schiraldi.
Mayor-elect Eric Adams at Brooklyn Borough Hall announces the appointment of Louis Molina, right, to head the Department of Correction, December 16, 2021.
Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
In the weeks that followed, Adams made good on his vow. He replaced Schiraldi with Molina, who immediately loosened the department’s sick leave policy, maneuvered to get rid of uniform regulations meant to curtail drug smuggling by guards, and pushed out several top department staffers, including those who had elevated Munsky and sided with the LGBTQ+ unit in debates over where to house trans women.
The purge began in January. Robin Robinson, another services coordinator with the LGBTQ+ unit, remembers showing up to work at department headquarters and feeling something was off.
Between all the communications flacks, policy wonks and corrections brass, the office normally had a little buzz. But now as they sat at their desks, no one wanted to chat. Robinson saw strangers in suits, who looked “powerful,” walking in and out of the building.
“We’re just waiting for something,” Robinson said. “It felt like the calm before the storm. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Robinson, who is Black and nonbinary, grew up in Corona, Queens, and survived a Christian upbringing that drove them to thoughts of suicide. When they joined the LGBTQ+ unit in June 2021, they found they had a lot in common with the incarcerated people they worked with.
“A lot of us come from similar backgrounds. Family may not be as accepting, or religious views that get in the way, or dealing with people on the outside who are not very accepting,” they recalled. “It was having those person-to-person conversations that I found really, really impactful.”
Robin Robinson, formerly a services coordinator with the LGBTQ+ unit, quit their job in protest this past June, photographed January 16, 2022.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Robinson’s newfound calling was about to be dramatically upended. On his first Monday on the job, Molina asked for the resignation of Sarena Townsend, the acclaimed investigator who had infuriated the corrections unions by going after the department’s massive backlog of cases, alleging improper use of force by guards.
Although Townsend, DOC deputy commissioner over the Intelligence, Investigation & Trials Division, was not active in day-to-day fights over housing decisions for trans women, she was someone the unit could count on to be an ally when push came to shove.
Moe Sheehan, the ex-deputy director of investigations, remembers getting a text from Townsend, her boss and longtime colleague, saying that HR had just escorted her out of office, as if she had done something wrong. That evening, Sheehan put in her two weeks’ notice.
Her departure was particularly hard for the LGBTQ+ unit. An ex-detective who grew up Irish Catholic in Queens and came out as a lesbian when she was 20, Sheehan was someone the team could rely on to conduct impartial investigations when trans women were accused of disciplinary infractions that endangered their spots at Rose M. Singer.
But the biggest loss came a month later, when Molina fired Dana Wax, the former commissioner’s chief of staff.
Wax had formally intervened on behalf of the unit in emergency housing situations at least once or twice a month, Savage recalls, and would more often nudge forward smaller requests from the team. She’d also promoted Munsky, the head of the unit, to an executive director position, supported the team’s efforts to win a new directive that would give it more power in housing decisions, and took daily calls from public defenders worried about trans clients.
“Dana had been honestly a person, who if I had a client in arraignments who was going to go to the wrong facility, I could email her or call her, and she would do her very best to try and intervene,” said Mik Kinkead, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s LGBTQ+ Law and Policy Unit.
But for several weeks, Kinkead recalls, the Department of Correction did not inform LGBTQ+ advocates of her departure. He remembers sending emails and hearing nothing back, assuming Wax was on vacation.
“It took us quite a long time to actually get the word that she no longer works at the department,” Kinkead said. “That was quite a shock to a number of us, that they would allow all the folks who had Dana as an outreach person to just sort of have no one to turn to anymore.”
Robinson agreed: “When the new administration came around and Dana Wax was fired, everything just stopped.”
In a statement, Mayor Adams said he was “proud” to have “fought alongside LGBTQ+ New Yorkers on the frontlines of many of the community’s hardest battles,” referencing his work on programming for homeless and runaway queer youth.
“My team and I are committed to serving all New Yorkers equally and fairly, regardless of how they identify,” Adams said. “Commissioner Molina has also worked over the past year to ensure that TGNBI individuals have access to the same programming options as cisgender individuals in custody, providing unique gender affirming programs and service opportunities for TGNBI individuals regardless of where they are housed and launching an internal committee to review and update policies so we continue to meet the needs of everyone in [our] custody.”
The LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit now found its work consumed by conflicts with mid-level bureaucrats, who resisted requests to house detainees based on their gender identities and no longer had to worry about pushback from above.
As a result, monthly programming for the LGBTQ+ community and weekly check-ins with the dozens of known trans detainees scattered across the island fell by the wayside.
“I haven’t seen the LGBTQ coordinator or anything like that,” said Kirby Hiciano, a trans woman who has spent more than a year on Rikers Island at Rose M. Singer and various male jails. “I have never met with nobody here from the LGBTQ team.”
“The program has now dissolved,” said one uniformed staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Those services and all of the support for staff and persons in custody no longer exist.”
In an email, the Department of Correction said that it is the responsibility of all staff to work with LGBTQ+ individuals and argued that detainees’ lack of interaction with the LGBTQ+ unit is not an indication that their needs are not being met.
At the end of 2021, the agency’s legal division vetted the draft directive on LGTBQ housing decisions and determined it was legally sound, the last step before its expected implementation, according to the former high-ranking DOC official. But with the new administration no longer prioritizing the issue, Feeney sat on it, according to three sources familiar with the proposal.
Robinson remembers feeling powerless.
“I would just come to my supervisor to follow up, ‘Like, what’s going on with the directive?’” they recalled. “Because there was nothing myself or Kelly could do to help push forward, like it’s out of our hands.”
The tone of the group calls, where corrections staff would decide on housing decisions for trans women, shifted too. Sheehan was gone. Wax couldn’t be called on. Their unit’s input no longer mattered, Robinson said.
During one call in the first few months of 2022, the group was reviewing the transfer application of a trans woman, who wanted to move from a male jail facility to Rose M. Singer. Robinson remembers that she had reported being raped multiple times, and thought she had a strong case.
But on the call, Robinson recalled, a deputy warden declared that she was “aggressive” and mentioned that the woman had previously been caught during a jail unit search with a condom.
“And so it makes her think, ‘Okay, she’s gonna want to try and have sex,’” Robinson said, recalling the administrator’s opposition. “And I’m like, ‘Okay, but you know, in the male facilities, she’s at risk of being raped, and Rosie’s will be much safer for her.”
Robinson tried to advocate on her behalf, pointing out that the detainee had successfully gotten her classification changed to “female” on government documents. “I asked, ‘Well, being that now that they have their gender marker changed to female, isn’t she supposed to be going to Rosie’s?’”
No one agreed with Robinson, who was the only person from the LGBTQ+ unit on the call. They kept the trans woman in the men’s jail.
That failure was one of many breaking points for Robinson.
“I see myself in these folks. I could very well be them in this situation,” they recalled. “And I can’t imagine how scared I’d be that it’d be too unsafe for me to come out because of risk of sexual harm.”
In the weeks that followed, Savage and Robinson stopped attending the housing calls. They say they didn’t want to be complicit in decisions they had no real input in.
Savage quit that April. Robinson followed two months later, leaving just one person in the unit, the director Elizabeth Munsky.
By the end, Robinson says the job was making them think about suicide.
“All that just took a toll on me, eventually, it just felt like there was no change [that] was going to happen, especially with this new administration,” they said. “The priority is not the safety of all people in custody, especially with the LGBTQ+ community, but to protect the image of Rikers Island, the Department of Correction. So then I was like, ‘Why am I here?’”
For trans women stuck in male housing at Rikers, the hollowing-out of the LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit had dire consequences.
In June, Lolai, the Bronx Defenders attorney, emailed numerous corrections staffers, including the head of the LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit, begging them to move her client, a trans woman, who had twice reported being raped by male detainees and attempted suicide, to Rose M. Singer.
Lolai did not receive a reply until that August when she followed up and copied Molina. Even then, the department continued to reject her client’s transfer request. Today, she remains detained at the all-male Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center.
Last August, a trans woman told her attorneys at The Legal Aid Society that a corrections officer came to her unit and told her in a public area that her requested transfer to Rose M. Singer had been delayed because of apparent paperwork issues. The woman felt she had been outed, and around 1:30 a.m. the following day, she told medical staff that a group of male detainees sexually assaulted her in the shower. The department sent her back to the same unit where she remained for three more days, according to her attorneys and internal documents.
The unit’s lack of say in housing decisions almost drove Tamera Harrison to suicide.
Last September, Harrison, a tall trans woman with mocha skin and warm brown eyes, was sent to the Eric M. Taylor Center, a men’s jail on the island, after police arrested her on a misdemeanor assault charge.
One afternoon later that month, as Harrison was unpacking her bag in her new dorm, she says, a shirtless man strode up to her like he ran the place.
“We’re a gangbanging tier. We don’t want no mooks on our tier,” he said. “Don’t even bother unpacking your things. Don’t even bother making your bed. Just go right back out the gate.”
Harrison tried to ignore him, but he reached for her property to ram it back inside her bag. With everyone watching, she says she knew she had to stand up for herself.
“I snapped and I just started punching,” she said.
The duo’s fist fight ended when officers finally pulled out their pepper spray, Harrison said. A terse DOC report shows staff did break up a fight that day, but does not describe their use of force.
Jail officials soon moved Harrison to AMKC, another male jail, but there she says the harassment continued.
One day, Harrison was reading a book in the cell of her bed, when she says a man from her unit pushed open the door.
The visitor had introduced himself to Harrison a few hours earlier. He had a soft, low voice, and seemed like a friend. But now his tone was now aggressive.
“He’s like, ‘You look mad good. You look sexy.’ And I’m just like, ‘Okay, thank you. Thank you, I appreciate it.’ And then he was like, ‘Can you suck my dick?’ And I was like, ‘What?’”
Harrison said no, but he kept advancing. She jumped off the bed to make it to the hallway where everyone could see her. But the man was undeterred. He followed her, smacking her butt, clutching her arms, and attempting to squeeze her breasts, she said. Harrison was humiliated but, she claims, the guards stayed at their posts.
Harrison reported the groping and asked for a housing transfer, jail paperwork shows. But the department left her in the same facility, and the investigation triggered by her complaint turned the other detainees against her, she recalls.
Tamera Harrison cut herself multiple times while being held in all-male housing at Rikers, photographed January 17.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
From other parts of her dorm, some of the man’s friends started yelling slurs and threatening to shank her. “You mook, you’ll never be shit, you HIV-AIDS having bitch,” she remembers them jeering.
Harrison says the guards locked her in her cell for her safety for several days. The other men carried on as normal. She says she struggled to get enough food and water. “I felt like, ‘Why was I being punished? Did I do something wrong?’”
Isolated and stressed, Harrison says she took a blade out of her shaving razor and cut her arm. Officials kept her in the same jail, calling the cuts on her left forearm “superficial” scratches in a report afterwards. That night, she says she cut her right arm too. “No serious injury,” a second report declared.
Harrison was put on suicide watch, and repeatedly told jail staff that she wanted to get out of her unit, documents show. So did her attorney from Brooklyn Defender Services, who asked that she be moved to West Facility, a medical unit on the island, where she would be housed with less dangerous detainees and be less likely to miss her hormone injections.
A day after the self-harm attempts, Munsky, now the sole staff member of the LGBTQ+ unit, emailed Harrison’s attorney and promised to “advocate for her to be placed in” West Facility.
As she waited for the unit’s intervention, Harrison missed a scheduled hormone injection, records show.
But 12 days after the self-harm incidents, Munsky circled back, informing the detainee’s attorneys that she was not able to secure the transfer. West Facility “unfortunately, seems like it is not an option,” she said.
Harrison’s social worker from Brooklyn Defender Services informed her that she would have to stay in the men’s jail. The next day, Harrison took a handful of AAA batteries from her radio and swallowed them.
She was scared of the other detainees, some of whom seemed to do “whatever they want,” she recalled.
“I swallowed those batteries because I wanted to try to go to the hospital, and to get out of this situation,” Harrison explained.
When Kinkead, the Legal Aid attorney, looks back at the Department of Correction’s shift on trans rights, he sees an opportunity for New York City that was lost.
After the death of Layleen Polanco in 2019, Kinkead, who is trans, was one of several LGBTQ+ activists who joined an official task force, convened by New York City Council, to give transgender, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex detainees and their advocates more say in jail policy.
“New York City is obviously one of the largest places for trans life and trans activism in the United States. So this was sort of like the cream of the cream,” Kinkead said. “They had the opportunity to really listen and engage with us.”
Legal Aid attorney Mik Kinkead says the city has lost an opportunity to lead on trans rights, January 18.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
And for just over two years, though they often had disagreements, the department did.
“Obviously, there were very tense meetings. I’m not gonna pretend otherwise. But there was engagement,” Kinkead said. “None of us who are trans-identified would have participated in those meetings if we hadn’t believed they were worthwhile.”
But in the months after Commissioner Molina took office, it appears that that working relationship fell apart.
Last August, after months of conflict with the new administration, Kinkead and other members of the task force published a blistering 146-page report, arguing that corrections officials were routinely failing TGNCNBI (transgender, nonconforming, nonbinary or intersex) detainees along nearly every step of their journey through city jails.
In response, the department issued a seven-page response, thanking the task force for its work and promising that it would continue to review its policies “to support the evolving needs of the TGNCNBI population.”
But in the aftermath of the report, the department effectively cut off the task force’s ability to investigate conditions in the jails.
Last October, after Kinkead made a detailed request for up-to-date department policies and numbers on TGNCNBI detainee housing placements, Chelsea Chard, a senior policy advisor for the agency, refused to share information. Chard complained that the task force’s report had disclosed information on agency policies which she characterized as “confidential.”
Likewise, earlier this month, Lolai, the Bronx Defenders attorney and a member of the task force, emailed DOC officials, asking if it would be possible to tour the jails, something the agency had previously let LGTBQ+ advocates do.
Chard responded with one line: “We will not be [able] to accommodate a tour of DOC facilities for task members at this time.”
The senior policy advisor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Unable to get the department to play ball, The Legal Aid Society, the Bronx Defenders, and other LGBTQ+ advocates are now pushing legislators in the City Council and the state legislature to override the agency.
One bill would compel jail administrators to create an appellate review board for housing decisions and involve the Board of Correction, the agency’s watchdog, in its reconsideration process. Such decisions would have to detail reasons for denials, which would be shared with detainees, a measure of transparency that public defenders say the agency routinely fails to meet.
Another proposal, currently under consideration in Albany, would require corrections administrators across the state to presumptively house detainees in facilities that align with their self-attested gender identities unless they choose to opt out of such placements.
Carlina Rivera, a Manhattan City Council member who chairs the Council’s committee on criminal justice, criticized the Department of Correction’s “lack of transparency” with the taskforce — a topic she plans to grill Commissioner Molina about at a Council hearing on Wednesday.
“If you want to show people that you care about a marginalized community that has historically been mistreated within the carceral system, then you should be doing everything in your power to make information and data publicly available, and to be as transparent as possible,” Rivera said. “We have not seen that from the administration. And that’s why we’re having a hearing now.”
In a statement to THE CITY, Molina argued that his department is still “a national leader” in housing and protecting LGBTQ+ people in its custody.
“We will not tolerate transphobic, homophobic or any other form of derogatory behavior and anyone caught violating this policy will be subject to disciplinary action,” he said. “Although we remain a model for other correctional jurisdictions, we recognize that there will always be room for improvement given the unique and fluid needs of this population which is why I have created an internal committee to review and update our policies to meet those needs.”
The Department of Correction declined to provide last year’s data on how long it took to respond to and act on trans women’s housing transfer requests, and how many trans women have been expelled from women’s housing.
In an email, the agency said that currently 38 of the 50 known trans, nonbinary or intersex people in its custody are housed in facilities with the gender classification of their choosing. The other 12 detainees, the department claimed, are in protective custody, mental observation housing, and other units.
Last October, after medical staff treated Harrison for swallowing several batteries, jail administrators sent her back to the Anna M. Kross Center, the men’s jail where she had reported being groped repeatedly and had cut both of her arms.
For the next few weeks, jail managers continued to shuffle Harrison around various male jails on the island, where she missed appointments for her hormone injections, psych meds and meetings with social workers, city records show.
On November 9, with the LGBTQ+ unit unable to get Harrison into the medical facility she had applied for, the 25-year-old asked staff if she could go to Rose M. Singer, according to notes at the bottom of a mental health form that referred to her having “frequent displays of shouting, crying and/or screaming” and “hallucinations/delusions.”
“Thinking about everything I had been going through when I was in the walls here this time around, was kind of taking a toll on me,” Harrison recalls. “I was starting to have a mental breakdown.”
Three weeks later, at around 9:40 on the morning of November 28, Harrison slit her wrist and forearm repeatedly with the blade of another shaving razor.
“I was feeling like killing myself,” she recalled. “It’s like, ‘What is it going to take for them to understand or take into consideration, accommodate how I’m feeling, where I want to go and where I feel much safer?’”
Harrison says she cried as she tried to get to her vein.
“I kept telling them, ‘I feel more safer at Rosie’s,’ but they keep putting me through hell, putting me on these tiers where these men are mistreating me, abusing me, sexually assaulting me,” she remembers thinking as she drove in the blade.
Harrison survived the cutting, which required stitches and left several marks up and down her arm.
A few days later, without any notification or explanation to her attorneys, the Department of Correction granted her request to go to Rose M. Singer.
At intake on the night of her transfer, Harrison says, the guards were polite and gave her food and new shower shoes. And the women she met gave her hugs. Some let her cry on their shoulders.
“That told me that, ‘Okay, I’m gonna be okay in here. I’m gonna be fine. I’m not gonna have any issue.’”
Since settling in, Harrison says the cis women have continued to be friendly, sharing snacks, doing her makeup, letting her watch movies with them, and calling her “she” and “her.”
Here, Harrison doesn’t always have to be on guard. She says it feels like “a heavy load” has been lifted off of her.
Of course, it’s still jail. She’s not able to eat the food she wants. She’s not able to walk or “beautify” herself the way she’d like to. Harrison has alopecia, but the staff won’t let her wear her favorite blond wig.
Still, she knows that she’s safe here.
“I know that I’m being loved and being cared for in the way that I want and I desire,” said Harrison. “And I’m being respected as a woman.”