May 10 was a big day for advocacy to end sexual violence in New York City jails. Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) members and staff spent the morning at the Board of Correction’s public meeting, where punitive segregation for young people, harassment during visitations, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) were discussed. After the meeting, SRLP joined other advocates on the steps of City Hall for a rally to #ShutDownRikers.
The Board of Correction is responsible for setting the minimum standards regulating conditions in all New York City correctional facilities, and for ensuring that those standards are met. During its regular meetings, the Board discusses and decides on the standards that the Department of Correction (DOC) must comply with in its day-to-day operations of City jails. Meetings are open to the public, and folks are invited to address the Board directly during a portion reserved for public comment.
Many of the folks who took to the podium during public comment shared their experiences of visiting loved ones in City jails. Stories of sexual violence, humiliating searches, and arbitrary denials at the hands of correctional staff were repeated. As one speaker put it, “people are being punished just for showing up.”
Board member Robert Cohen responded with his own concerns about correctional staff abusing their power and revoking visitor rights. He pointed out that so far in 2016, there have already been 996 visit denials. He noted, “four years ago, when the population was substantially higher, there were only 445 visit denials.” This trend points to how, even as the DOC is being directed to phase out the use of solitary confinement, the jails remain committed to isolating people.
Even when visitors are able to see their loved ones, it is often after first being subjected to violating searches. Natalie, a social worker and member of the Jails Action Coalition, explained that people are routinely required to show their genitals and breasts to officers before being granted contact visits. In some cases, they are still denied.
Folks were not only calling on the Board to address the sexual violence that jail inflicts on visitors, but also that which it subjects to the people on the inside. SRLP member, Xena, urged the Board to do more to hold the DOC accountable to the standards set out by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). “You’ve made tremendous strides […] but you need to step it up when it comes to PREA.” She spoke directly to her own experience on Rikers island, and challenged the Board to address the specific violence targeting transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex (TGNCI) people in jail. “We go through more abuse on the island than a lot of the other detainees, especially when it comes to sexual assault and rape.”
Xena also noted the absence of the DOC representatives at this point in the meeting. While representatives from the DOC, including Commissioner Joseph Ponte and Chief of Staff Jeff Thamkittikasem, were present and active participants throughout most of the morning, they did not stick around to hear the public speak. Xena expressed her frustration that “the commissioner and the top echelons of corrections always find a way to get out of here early,” adding “they never sit through to hear about the PREA Act […] I want the commissioner here to be able to answer to this.”
SRLP staff attorney and Director of the Prisoner Justice Project Mik Kinkhead also spoke of the importance of having meaningful PREA standards that go beyond the minimum federal requirements, and which address the specific needs of New York City.
Mik pressed the Board to seek the guidance of people inside the jails; those who know best what kind of changes are needed. He relayed some of the comments submitted by TGNCI folks on the inside, including a call to end the use of solitary confinement as a safety measure. “No transgender person should be held in solitary or solitary-like conditions just because of their identity.” As Mik pointed out, solitary is not safety.
Mik also addressed the DOC’s threats to close the Transgender Housing Unit due to claims that it is not PREA compliant. In reality, the Transgender Housing Unit has cut down on the sexual violence against the people held there. Mik explained that, while almost all of the clients he has represented have experienced harassing language, unwanted touching, and rape while outside—or while being escorted to and from—the Trans Housing Unit, none have reported these incidents happening while inside the unit. “The Transgender Housing Unit is eliminating rape in the New York City jails, so to close it would be completely contrary to the Prison Rape Elimination Act.”
It has been over a year since Public Advocate, the Legal Aid Society, and SRLP sent comments to the Board of Correction detailing what it would mean to have meaningful PREA standards in New York City that includes the needs of TGNCI people. Board members have expressed a commitment to moving forward in ending sexual violence in jails. One immediate step that they can take is to respond to Mik’s appeal to consult the people experiencing the violence first-hand. “The Board needs to visit the people, and in particular the trans women in the Trans Housing Unit and in the men’s jails who are surviving this, and talk to them about what they need and what they want.”
The next Board of Correction public meeting will be held on Tuesday, June 14 at 125 Worth Street in Manhattan. A video of the May 10 meeting can be found on the Board of Correction’s YouTube page.