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LGBTQ+ Detainees at Rikers Island Suffer Under Mayor Adams

by Kevin W. Bliss

On June 8, 2023, the New York City Council passed legislation to ensure transgender, gender-nonconforming, non-binary and intersex (TGNCNBI) detainees and prisoners at city lockups are provided with services designed to make their reentry into society easier and more successful.

But nothing comes for free, including these policy changes, which resulted from a five-month investigation by New York magazine that revealed Mayor Eric Adams (D), a former captain in the city police department, pushed out leaders in the city Department of Correction (DOC) who were supportive of sexual minority detainees, drafting a policy directive to assign more TGNCNBI detainees at the city’s Rikers Island jail complex into housing that aligned with their gender identity. That has now been discarded.

But the new legislation is the first passed of three proposals to reverse that reversal. Both of the remaining pending bills will also protect incarcerated TGNCNBI people, who experience some of the highest rates of sexual violence.

Under former Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D), a transgender housing unit was opened at Rikers Island in 2015. Three years later DeBlasio directed DOC to house detainees in units consistent with their gender identity, since “[i]t’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.”

In spring 2019, DOC launched a new LGBTQ+ Initiatives Unit to ensure protection of the rights of sexual minorities. Then-DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi hired Elizabeth Munsky to head the unit. She was backed by two service coordinators, Kels Savage and Robin Robinson. Between them were years of experience in dealing with gender violence, LGBTQ+ youth and advocacy programs.

Suddenly, sexual minority detainees had access to resource fairs, re-entry services and legal advocacy. Incidents of gender identity violence at the jail declined. Preferred housing requests got more consideration.

But when Adams was elected mayor, he replaced Schiraldi with Louis Molina, who shelved many of the new policies and programs. He also removed supportive staffers, inhibiting transfer requests for more secure housing. Access to gender housing information that had previously been granted to Munsky’s unit was suddenly denied.

Savage resigned in protest in April 2022. Robinson followed her out the door the following June. “It’s like they didn’t hear what we were saying,” Savage recalled.

“The priority is not the safety of all people in custody, especially with the LGBTQ+ community,” Robinson added, “but to protect the image of Rikers Island, the [DOC].”

That leaves Munsky as the sole remaining staffer in DOC’s LGBTQ+ unit. Over the past year, Rikers Island has suffered an increase in gender identity violence and violations of LGBTQ+ rights, advocates claim.  

Source: The City