CIVIC CENTER — The Department of Correction is considering closing a unit on Rikers Island that houses transgender inmates as it continues to try to comply with federal regulations targeting sexual violence in jails.
The Board of Correction, which oversees the department, unanimously passed new rules at a hearing on Tuesday meant to bring the city's jails in line with national standards set by the Department of Justice in 2003 under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
Several elements of the rules pertain to how transgender inmates are housed, searched and treated while in custody.
But the department says that PREA forbids segregated housing for transgender inmates, and therefore it must close down the existing transgender unit at Rikers.
"The reason the city has given us for not continuing this unit is that the rule of PREA says that you cannot have a transgender unit," said board member Robert Cohen at the Tuesday meeting.
"No, it does not! I was there!" interrupted Xena Grandicelli, one of the transgender advocates who attended the hearing to urge the board not to allow the closure of the unit.
"I agree with you," Cohen responded. "The people who are doing the [PREA] monitoring right now, I've spoken to them in Washington, and they say they screwed up on this."
Cohen said he has urged the DOC, both in private meetings and publicly, not to close down the trans housing unit.
He noted that the DOC has "a very, very long process for achieving PREA compliance," which "involves going one facility after another," rather than implementing the new rules in every section of Rikers and other city jails all at once.
"They've said it's going to take them up to five years to do this," Cohen said. "The last facility to be accredited should be the one that has the trans unit in it."
After the vote passing the new rules, the transgender advocates in the meeting room held up signs in silent protest.
Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte did not give a specific timeline as to when the unit would be closed.
"We're not going to close the unit today," Ponte said after the meeting. "We're going to try to work with the advocates to try to find a way that we keep the unit open to everyone's satisfaction, but we have to deal with the contrary piece of the law if we want to be PREA-compliant."
"You can't house people [separately] for that reason alone," he added. "There's other criteria to take into consideration. You just can't have that type of housing."
Ponte said the number of transgender inmates in city jails "in general have been fairly small, about 10, maybe, at the highest."
"They fluctuate," he said. "It's a jail. so they could go up and down."
And Ponte acknowledged that transgender inmates are "absolutely" among the most at-risk in prisons.
He said he hoped that by focusing on "safety for all inmates," DOC could also provide safety for transgender ones.
"As you look at safety precautions for this group of inmates, you look where you could house them in a population safely," he said. "Just like if somebody came in with a disability or some other issue that put them at risk."
But transgender advocates say neither DOC nor BOC made substantive efforts to reach out to them, and did not provide them with the rules in question until late Thursday, a few days before the Tuesday vote — something Cohen acknowledged.
"I apologize for the delay in getting the rule to you this week," he said at the meeting. "This has been going on for close to two years right now and the sense of this board was that it had to get done."