At a hearing on Wednesday morning, City Council members grilled New York City’s corrections commissioner, Louis Molina, over his administration’s treatment of incarcerated trans women on Rikers Island.
The heated inquiry comes on the heels of a recent investigation by THE CITY (and co-published by New York Magazine) which exposed the collapse of a Department of Correction unit dedicated to protecting LGBTQ+ detainees. THE CITY uncovered numerous cases of agency officials failing to take prompt action following trans women’s reports of sexual harassment, rape and attempts at self-harm.
The unit’s disintegration took place just months after Mayor Eric Adams replaced Vincent Schiraldi, a reform-minded commissioner whose agenda was stymied by months of conflict with jail guards’ unions, with Molina.
Citing the investigation, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams slammed the Department of Correction for walking back LGBTQ+ programs, firing top administrators who had supported the unit and allowing the unit to fall apart.
“The unit now only employs one person. The rest of the staff resigned in protest, one of whom had suicidal thoughts because they felt powerless and abused,” said Williams. “I want to acknowledge and encourage the whistleblowers and incarcerated trans women despite risk of reprisal.”
Launching the hearing, City Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D – Manhattan), head of the Council’s criminal justice committee, asked Molina to explain the unit’s attrition.
“[In] that particular unit we have one executive director who is still on staff. We have vacancies in that unit,” Molina admitted, noting that the agency had struggled across the board with staff departures.
City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán (D – Queens), chair of the committee on women and gender equity, pushed back on Molina’s explanation, noting that two of the unit’s staffers quit specifically in protest of the department’s shift on LGTBQ+ rights.
“That seems like a really targeted and specific cultural problem that the DOC needs to fix. Would you agree?,” asked Cabán, a former public defender.
“No, I would not,” Molina answered.
Rivera also questioned why the Department of Correction was unwilling to make public a draft directive concerning housing decisions for LGBTQ+ detainees that Molina shelved on the eve of its expected implementation at the beginning of 2022.
The proposal, a copy of which was obtained by THE CITY, would have given the LGBTQ+ unit more power in housing decisions for trans women and created more gender-aligned housing options for trans and gender non-conforming detainees across Rikers Island.
Rivera argued that incarcerated people need access to the policy proposal. “How does the department expect compliance if people don’t know their rights?,” she asked.
Citing unspecified “security parameters,” Molina stood his ground, declaring that the shelved directive was not “a public document.”
Pressed by the Public Advocate about the directive, Molina did not explain why the proposal had not been implemented, but noted that his agency was reviewing and working on numerous policy ideas simultaneously.
The contentious debate over the sidelined LGBTQ+ unit was the latest flashpoint in an escalating battle between Adams administration officials and advocates.
Last June, four LGBTQ+ organizations boycotted a Pride Parade reception with Adams, citing his decision to appoint two pastors with histories of anti-LGBTQ+ views. Adams refused to rescind the appointments.
Two months later, a task force convened by the City Council to offer trans, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex detainees and their advocates greater say in jail policy published a blistering report criticizing the Department of Correction’s treatment of trans women in its custody.
The department publicly thanked the task force for its feedback but behind the scenes, correction leaders refused to provide data, policy information or jail facility access to the task force, curbing its ability to monitor conditions for trans, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex detainees, according to internal emails reviewed by THE CITY.
Rivera pressed Molina about the department’s recent refusal to hand over data to the task force.
“Can you and your team commit to giving this updated data to task force members on a monthly basis?,” she asked.
But the commissioner was non-committal.
“I can commit to evaluating the request and of course being open minded with the goal of being forward thinking as we have been since 2018,” Molina responded.
“Forward thinking is important, but so is transparency,” Rivera shot back.
With the breakdown in the relationship between Department of Correction leaders and LGBTQ+ groups, advocates are now pushing lawmakers to intervene.
One City Council bill, discussed at the hearing, would force corrections administrators to form a review board for housing decisions along with the agency’s city monitor, the Board of Correction, and the jail’s health services team. Those decisions would have to be shared with incarcerated people and provide a rationale for denied housing transfer applications.
At the hearing, Molina pushed back on giving external agencies such decision-making powers. Neither the Board of Correction nor Correctional Health Services, the commissioner said, “has expertise in classification, security, or jail management,” arguing the department already has a sufficient housing reconsideration process.
Currently, the New York state legislature is mulling a more ambitious proposal, the Gender, Identity, Respect, Dignity, and Safety Act, which would require jail officials across the state to presumptively house incarcerated people in facilities that align with their self-attested gender identities unless they chose to forgo such placements.
“Existing policy fails to respect gender identity and protect TGNC individuals, who face especially high rates of violence in prisons and jails,” said Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar, one of the bills’ sponsors, in a statement. “This is exactly why we need to pass the Gender, Identity, Respect, Dignity, and Safety Act.”
Asked about that bill by Councilmember Erik Bottcher (D – Manhattan), Molina said he needed more time to contemplate the “operational and security concerns” that it might raise.