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Rikers Jail Whistleblower Decries Collapse of LGBTQ+ Unit Meant to Protect Trans Detainees

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We look at a new investigation into the collapse of an LGBTQ+ unit at the massive Rikers Island jail in New York City that was meant to help protect incarcerated trans women, stranding many in male units where they have been harassed and raped. The changes at Rikers came after Mayor Eric Adams appointed a new jails commissioner who pushed out leaders supportive of the unit and shelved a draft policy directive aimed at getting more trans and gender-nonconforming detainees into gender-aligned housing. Data shows trans women jailed in men’s facilities are many times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other incarcerated people. We are joined by George Joseph, a senior reporter at The City focusing on criminal justice and courts, who exposed the collapse of the unit, and by Robin Robinson, a former services coordinator with the LGBTQ+ unit at Rikers who quit in protest this past June.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We look now at a new investigation into the collapse of the LGBTQ+ unit at the massive Rikers Island jail here in New York City that was designed to help protect trans women held there, stranding many in male jails, where they’ve been harassed and raped. This comes as trans women across the country are routinely jailed in male facilities and are many times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other incarcerated people.

The change at Rikers came after New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams installed a new jails commissioner, who pushed out top department leaders who were supportive of the unit, and shelved a draft policy directive aimed at getting more trans and gender-nonconforming detainees into gender-aligned housing. Last week, the new Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina testified before the New York City Council about staffing at the LGBTQI Initiative unit at Rikers Island. He was questioned by New York City Councilmember Carlina Rivera.

COUNCILMEMBER CARLINA RIVERA: The DOC LGBTQI Initiatives unit has lost three of four employees in the past year. What is the total number of staff at present?

LOUIS MOLINA: For that particular unit, we have one executive director that is still on staff. We have vacancies in that unit, as well as we have vacancies in a number of business units within the department. Our challenges with attrition across the board, for both uniform and nonuniform staff, is not unique to the New York City Department of Corrections. And people in a professional job move on to do other things.

COUNCILMEMBER CARLINA RIVERA: So, right now there’s currently one staff member, the director?

LOUIS MOLINA: We have one executive director.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by George Joseph, senior reporter at The City focusing on criminal justice and courts. His new investigation is headlined “Under Eric Adams, a Rikers Island Unit That Protected Trans Women Has Collapsed.” Also with us, Robin Robinson, a former services coordinator with the LGBTQ+ unit at Rikers Island jail complex, who quit in protest this past June.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with George Joseph. Lay out what you found.

GEORGE JOSEPH: So, in the years before Eric Adams came into office in New York City, New York’s administration in the jails had tried to take incremental steps to protect trans women. It created this unit, which had done unique programming for the LGBTQ community. That unit eventually got more and more authority in the department, so it had more decision-making power in terms of where vulnerable LGBTQ detainees were kept, especially trans women, who have one of the greatest risks for sexual harm in the jail system. And it was on the verge of winning a new policy directive that would have helped create more gender-aligned housing spaces for trans women across Rikers Island so that they could get into safer day-to-day living conditions without being harassed and sexually violated.

You know, within months of Eric Adams appointing his new jails commissioner, almost all of those progressive steps were reversed. The unit that we were referring to collapsed. Now it just has one staff member. And all that programming, all that authority it had in the department has more or less vanished, according to sources in the jails that we spoke to as part of this investigation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The issue of trans women being routinely jailed in male facilities, that they’re many more times likely to be sexually assaulted than other incarcerated people. What are the other forms of abuse faced by trans people at Rikers?

GEORGE JOSEPH: So, as part of this investigation, we spoke to at least four trans women who are currently in male housing jails at Rikers Island. And all of them said that just on a day-to-day level, from both guards and other incarcerated people, they face sexual harassment. They face transphobia. They’re often called derogatory names, like “mook” and other sort of anti-LGBTQ terms. Oftentimes they are pressured into doing sexual acts which they don’t want to do. And in addition to full-on sexual assaults, there’s all sorts of inappropriate touching and just violence that’s enacted onto them. And this is very well known both in the New York City jail system and in jails and prisons across the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Can you tell us about Tamera Harrison, one of the trans women that you dealt with in your story?

GEORGE JOSEPH: Yes. Tamera Harrison is someone who came to Rikers Island late in 2022, for the part of the story that we reported on for her. She was immediately placed in a male jail and reported to corrections authorities that she had been groped repeatedly by another incarcerated person. Despite that report, they continued to keep her in male jails. And out of desperation, she ended up taking a razor blade and cutting both of her arms, her right and her left arm. Even after both of those acts of self-harm, the corrections authorities were unwilling to move her to a female housing unit.

She went to the LGBTQ unit, which at this point only had one employee and next to no say in housing decisions. And though the unit tried to get her moved to a medical facility, where she had been requesting a transfer, she was basically unable to get moved out of the same male housing unit. After learning about the unit’s failure, she swallowed batteries, forcing her to go to the hospital. Even then, the Department of Correction did not move her to another facility that she wanted.

By this point, she was asking to go to Rosie’s, which is the women’s jail on Rikers Island. Several weeks later, she cuts her arm for a third time, requiring serious stitches. And only after that did the Department of Correction finally move her to Rose M. Singer, the women’s jail, where she now reports feeling much safer and just sort of being able to live day to day without harassment.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Robin Robinson into the conversation. Robin, you resigned from Rikers’ LGBTQ+ unit this past June in protest of the conditions faced by people jailed there and the unit’s rapid deterioration. Can you describe what you saw while working there, and what your job was, that pushed you ultimately to quit and speak out about what was happening? You began working there in 2021?

ROBIN ROBINSON: Yes, that is correct. I started in 2021.

And what I saw there, from what many trans women and gender-nonconforming has told me, they were called names by staff members, by other people in custody. They were called derogatory names. We had one particular trans man who was pretty much scared out of wanting to go into one of the housing units that housed other trans men, transgender women by staff members. He stated that the correctional officers said to not to go into that unit because “those trans women are just men, and you’re going to be raped.” There were many instances where, again, a lot of trans women are being harassed in the male facilities, and when trying to ask for help, they are not believed by the correction officers. There was a situation where a trans woman was physically assaulted and burned with hot water and suffered third-degree burns, and nothing was done about the situation at all. There was supposed to be an investigation, and then everything just went dead.

At the point where I was getting tired of being in this space was when I was on a call to advocate for someone to go into safer housing, gender-aligned housing. This trans woman was in the male facility and was raped twice. And when trying to advocate on the phone call, staff members disagreed with me in trying to get this person into the female facility. They labeled the trans woman as aggressive and were more concerned that she would try to have sex with the other women. There is this hyperfixation on trans women’s bodies, particularly like what’s in between their legs. And a lot of times when a trans woman is denied gender-aligned housing at the female facility, it is because of this idea that these trans women are really just men who want to prey on women or want to have sex with the women.

So, I decided, like, I cannot — no longer be working in a space that causes so much harm to the trans people on Rikers. And I didn’t want to be complicit in that harm. And as a Black nonbinary trans person myself, I saw myself a lot in these individuals. We have a lot in common as far as our experiences as trans people. So I saw myself in these people. And it was a hard choice. I feel guilty for leaving, but I also knew it was the right decision, because I could not be in a space where I’m constantly witnessing people being abused verbally, sexually assaulted, and no one is doing nothing about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Like the case of Layleen Polanco. I just wanted to go to that for a minute. This is Melania Brown reading from an op-ed she wrote for NBC News about her sister, Layleen, who was a 27-year-old trans woman, died in solitary confinement in Rikers in 2019.

MELANIA BROWN: My sister, Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, died last year at the notorious Rikers Island prison. While in detention, she suffered an epileptic seizure and died alone in solitary confinement. She was only 27 years old — nowhere close to getting to fully live her life. The system killed her, like it kills so many Black people and other people of color.

To be clear, my sister’s death was preventable. The New York City Department of Correction knew about her medical condition and yet, as a new report revealed, pushed to place her in solitary confinement over the objections of medical staff members. They pushed her into solitary in part because they didn’t know how to house a transgender woman in Rikers.

AMY GOODMAN: As hundreds of people protested the death of Layleen Polanco, the trans woman who died in solitary confinement at Rikers, the Department of Correction announced the launch of what was then known as the LGBTQ+ Initiatives unit. George, if you could tell us, finally, more about her case and how now the whole thing is unraveling? And then Juan.

GEORGE JOSEPH: Yes. So, Layleen Polanco had been in solitary confinement and, according to her family, had a seizure, which helped result in her death. And that spurred a larger movement, led by her family, to end solitary confinement in New York City jails. Towards the tail end of the de Blasio administration, our former mayor here in New York City, there were some limits put on solitary confinement, limiting the amount of hours that someone could be kept in a cell in what they call punitive segregation by themselves. That measure didn’t go as far as the Polanco family wanted in terms of totally getting rid of solitary confinement, but it was a restriction.

Two weeks before Mayor Eric Adams took office officially, he held a press conference where he introduced his new jails commissioner, and he announced himself that he was going to get rid of those restrictions on solitary confinement. That was seen as a major win for the corrections officers’ unions here in New York City, which had been pushing for years against any changes to the solitary confinement policy. And as one of his first acts before he even went into office, he rolled back those protections.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Robin Robinson, I wanted to ask you: In terms of the power of the corrections union to have an impact on city jail policy, whether it was under de Blasio or Mayor Eric Adams, what’s your sense of the ability of the corrections union to determine what happens at Rikers and in other city jail facilities?

ROBIN ROBINSON: From my understanding, in terms of, like — excuse me — for punitive segregation or housing, in general, a decision is usually made based on phone calls that they’re hearing, maybe Genetec footage, as well, and also going to the individuals, speaking with them, knowing what’s going on in that situation. And that’s usually how situations — trans people or people, in general, are either put into punitive segregation or moved to different housing units.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally —

ROBIN ROBINSON: Hope that answers your question.



JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was your experience in terms of Commissioner Molina, once he came into office, how things changed in terms of the jail system or Rikers dealing with trans people?

ROBIN ROBINSON: When the Adams administration came in, it felt like a lot of things that were moving forward were now going backwards. It felt like we were going backwards. We didn’t have much of a say-so as we used to have in the LGBTQ Affairs unit. Eventually, it got to a point where staff, like, just refused — LGBTQ staff refused to be on the housing calls, because nothing we said held any merit. Even when trying to push for the new LGBTQ policy that would help support trans people and LGBTQ people on Rikers, that was stalled. And myself and my other colleagues just felt powerless, because there was nothing we can do to try to push it forward. It felt like we had no say-so in anything anymore. I have tried asking my supervisor, like, what’s going on with the directive. Like, is it going to move forward? And oftentimes it was just, “Oh, we have to wait and see.” There was a lot of steps, but it was really, overall, just exhausting, because everything that we had worked so hard for, it felt like it was for nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Robin Robinson, we want to thank you for speaking out, former services coordinator with the LGBTQ+ unit at Rikers Island jail, quit in protest in June. And, George Joseph of The City, we’ll link to your new investigation, “Under Eric Adams, a Rikers Island Unit That Protected Trans Women Has Collapsed.”

Next up, we speak with the economist Richard Wolff about the debt ceiling and the economics of the Ukraine war. Back in 20 seconds.

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