This week, SRLP is celebrating the effect that our voices and truths can have on the law. In a surprising and important move, the Board of Correction – the oversight and monitoring body for New York City’s jails – issued a harsh resolution and timeline in response to the New York City Department of Correction’s continued refusal to meet certain screening and housing requirements of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and the City’s own Minimum Standards for the jails. Specifically, the Board sought to address the Department of Correction’s failure to create a tool for screening every individual for both their fear of sexual violence and their preferred housing arrangement and to then train all intake staff on how to use these tools, how to track tools, and reporting this information to the Board. The resolution calls on the Department to come into compliance with the law within a matter of weeks.
This resolution is the result of an eleventh-hour request that the Department made to the Board at their September meeting. Just five days before the October meeting, the Department sought leave to be allowed six additional months before creating, implementing, training, and tracking housing and safety for all individuals and for transgender and intersex individuals specifically. The only reason the Department gave for needing an additional six months was the need for a new computer system. The Department was unable to explain why it has taken them close to a year under the new city standards, and since 2012 under the federal standards, to figure out that a new computer system was needed. They were unable to answer how individuals were currently being treated or how transgender and intersex individuals would be housed between September and February. You can watch the testimony of the Department and the Board’s response here.
As the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Legal Aid Society, and several survivors of the city jails testified at both the September and October hearings, the failure of the City to comply with these laws is a failure to take seriously their duty to keep every individual in the NYC jails free from sexual violence.
Specifically, as SRLP wrote to the board in our statement the failure of the city to meet these standards has a real-world impact on all individuals, but especially transgender women who are surviving the NYC jails. Under the law, any transgender or intersex individual should be asked specifically tailored questions to try and gauge the best housing situation for their safety. Our own views of safety must be given “serious consideration” and the presumption should be that all transgender and intersex people will be housed according to our actual gender identity unless 1) we do not request that or 2) there is a legitimate and recorded security reason as to why the housing request should not be honored.
In reality, SRLP has yet to hear of a transgender woman who was knowingly and purposefully housed in a women’s jail. We have followed clients as they never revealed their identity (and, therefore, had to go without access to both specific programs and services as well as medically necessary healthcare) and transgender women and intersex men as they shared their identity and were immediately housed according to their sex assigned at birth, placing them at great risk for violence. When people are housed according to sex assigned at birth, it promotes our dehumanization and the denial of our dignity. For a woman to be called “man” or her male birth name every day in every interaction, to be denied the right to dress herself in a way that reflects her identity – especially when facing trial or having visits – is degrading and makes our identities into jokes. This promotes a rape culture, making it easier for others to commit acts of sexual violence without consequence.
In a move that SRLP has never seen, the Board proposed and passed a resolution stating that the Department has “failed to comply, and continues to be noncompliant” regarding a “critical component of preventing sexual violence” in the NYC jails. Not only did the Board deny the request for additional time, but they also require the Department to take remedial action between October 9 and November 1 to correct their failures of compliance. See the full resolution here. While most of the resolution focuses on bringing the Department into compliance with the Minimum Standards there are also new sections added.
This resolution is an important step taken by the Board to enforce the federal and city laws that – in writing – presume that all transgender and intersex people will be housed according to their actual gender identity unless they 1) do not request that or 2) there is a legitimate and recorded security reason as to why the housing request should not be honored. These laws, which SRLP spoke about at length in our commentary, have not been meaningfully enforced in any jurisdiction that SRLP knows of around the nation. The Board’s resolution requiring that the Department notify them of “each placement of a transgender or intersex person, all information considered in making such determination, and the reasons” every two weeks signifies to the Department – and to everyone – that our identities and our safety are both real and to be respected. The new requirement, that the Department begin to administer weekly council meetings in the Transgender Housing Unit, is an important development as it follows on over two years of SRLP and the New York Legal Assistance Group’s LGBT Unit reporting to both the Department and the Board that there are serious concerns in the staffing, programming, and general reassuring of the unit.
We know that such resolutions are only as effective as their monitoring and enforcement. For this reason, SRLP will be contacting all of our members in the THU to make sure that they are being met with and that their experiences of the enforcement of these measures is respectful and consistent. We also ask you to please spread the word to your loved ones who may be in the NYC jails of their right to be housed correctly and their ability to report any non-compliance to the Board. Loved ones can contact the Board by calling 212-669-7900 or filing a complaint online. You can also mail a letter to BOC at 1 Centre Street, Room 2213, New York, NY 10007 or fax them at 212-669-7980. Between 8am-4pm, Monday-Friday, you can also go in person to file at 1 Centre Street, Room 2213 in Manhattan.
We want to celebrate and thank the many transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming people who gave their stories and voices to this win – often at the risk of great personal harm to their selves. SRLP will honor those stories and courage by continuing to fight the policing and criminalization of our identities and bodies.
Director of Prisoner Justice Project