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City Council Passes Bill To Restore Reentry Services to Trans Women on Rikers Island

Under Eric Adams’ commissioner, the Department of Correction gutted a specialized LGBTQ+ unit at Rikers. But following an investigation by THE CITY, lawmakers are pushing back with new legislation.

SHARE City Council Passes Bill To Restore Reentry Services to Trans Women on Rikers Island

Councilmembers Carlina Rivera and Tiffany Cabán led a hearing on the treatment of transgender people on Rikers Island, Jan. 25, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The City Council passed legislation today requiring the city jail system to provide transgender, gender-nonconforming, non-binary and intersex (TGNCNBI) detainees with services to prepare them for reentry into society — specialized programming that has fallen by the wayside since Mayor Eric Adams took office.

The legislation comes five months after a joint investigation by THE CITY and New York magazine, which documented how corrections officials under Adams gutted a specialized unit that formerly had helped TGNCNBI detainees connect with attorneys, get placement in gender-aligned jail units while on Rikers Island, and find post-release housing options.

The bill is the first of three proposals the Council expects to pass this year to support and protect incarcerated TGNCNBI people, who face some of the highest rates of sexual violence behind bars.

Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), the bill’s chief sponsor, said she decided to push forward the legislation after a January council hearing in which she questioned Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina about THE CITY’s reporting, which found that Molina — who took office in January — pushed out top department figures who supported the unit, shelved an incoming policy directive meant to ensure gender-aligned jail placements, and stood by as the LGBTQ+ unit collapsed from within.

At the Council meeting, Molina admitted that his administration had left the unit with just one staff member for months, but denied that his agency had a “cultural problem,” despite the decision of two of the small unit’s staffers to resign in protest during his tenure.

“It was clear that the Department of Correction was not going to make this a priority, or even respond to its failure,” said Rivera, who chairs Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice, in an interview with THE CITY. 

“There is a void of DOC staff to fight for the dignity and safety of queer incarcerated people, which is a historically marginalized community that experiences disproportionate rates of violence and discrimination in the jail system,” she said.

According to Rivera’s office, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice will shape the program, which will use either in-house corrections staff or existing service providers to help detainees with benefits enrollment and placements in outpatient mental health, drug treatment, and housing services ahead of their release.

“This is an important first step and we look forward to continue working with the City Council to advance other critical legislation that will ensure the safety and well-being of our TGNCNBI clients incarcerated in local jails,” said Mik Kinkead, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s LGBTQ+ Law and Policy Unit. 

“A crucial part of this bill’s success will be the willingness of re-entry service providers to step up and provide the crucial services our clients need in spaces that uplift their dignity and humanity,” Kinkead said.

The Department of Correction (DOC) declined to comment for this story, but in an email Kate Smart, a City Hall spokesperson, confirmed that Adams supports the bill.

“We’re committed to ensuring that TGNCNBI people in custody have access to the resources and support they need,” Smart said. “Intro 831 builds on important work currently taking place at Rikers and we support it.”

Council sources say at least two more related bills are expected to pass later this year. 

One bill from Rivera and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams would make DOC disclose precise data on how often it transfers trans women into male jail units, a secretive process that can put trans women at high risk of sexual and physical violence.

Another bill by Councilmember Keith Powers would give TGNCNBI detainees more rights after being rejected from gender-aligned housing units. The current version of the bill would make DOC promptly notify detainees of rejections in writing, and create an appellate review board to review housing placement appeals from applicants.

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