The new housing unit for transgender women at Rikers Island. | NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION
BY ANDY HUMM | The transgender housing unit on New York City’s Rikers Island, announced as opening imminently in mid-November as one of a raft of reforms to reduce violence at the troubled jail, has only just accepted inmates now. And Gay City News has spoken to two transgender prisoners who say that in the interim, they were mistreated by staff and sexually assaulted by other inmates.
The new unit at Rikers, which Gay City News toured exclusively while still empty in November, is for man-to-woman transgender inmates who have not undergone genital surgery. The previous policy was to place such inmates with men.
A Department of Correction (DOC) spokesperson e-mailed, “The Transgender Housing Unit was physically ready for inmates in mid-November. However, a final review of national best practices related to Transgender inmate protocols took longer than expected. Combined with administrative delays and the holidays, this saw the first women moved to the unit on January 15.”
New unit finally opens, two months after completion and after more abuse reports
Diamond Spradley, 28, a transgender woman inmate now at the Manhattan Detention Complex where I spoke with her, said she was raped at Rikers by another inmate in late November. She said that she complained to staff about it but the alleged rapist was let back into her unit where he assaulted her again, physically injuring her neck. She said that at that point, a doctor at Rikers took her seriously and she started to get moved around, ending up in the Lower Manhattan facility. Spradley said that staff do not address her as a woman and made her remove hair weaves, and that she has been so mistreated she is sorry that she reported the assault.
Spradley, a former client of New Alternatives for Homeless LGBT Youth — where this reporter is on the board — initially asked about the transgender unit, according to Kate Barnhart, the group’s executive director. But Spradley concluded she would prefer being in the general male population. The DOC said a survey of transgender inmates found that half wanted to be in the segregated trans unit and half did not, mostly due to the vicissitudes of negotiating their safety within a new housing unit. Some want to stick with where they have carved out a place for themselves rather than chance a new unit.
Sequoia Honeycutt, 19, another client of New Alternatives, was at Rikers from December 19 to 31.
“It was really, really horrible,” she said. “All the male staff was very disrespectful. They would rub it in my face that I was a man in a men’s facility and would always be a man. It was very downgrading.”
Honeycutt, too, said she was sexually assaulted by another inmate.
“One of them touched my ass and jacked off beside me while I was trying to sleep,” she said. “I was too scared to move. The other guys were laughing. There were Bloods and Crips that did not want me on their unit. Every unit belongs to somebody.”
Honeycutt asked to be transferred to the transgender unit, but was told it was not open. She said she reported the assault to the captain and “kept telling the guard, but they didn’t care.” She also said she was denied the opportunity to shave for “four to five days when it is supposed to be every day. Hadn’t had a shower. Had to sleep on the floor on intake. It took two weeks to get testosterone blocks,” the drugs she needs for her transition. She was given her own cell on her final day there.
Honeycutt said, “I’ve been transgender since I was 16. I’m from North Carolina and homeless here.” She intends to file a complaint against the city. “All the staff called me ‘Mr. Honeycutt,’ she said. “I really forgot who I was. It hurt more than anything. I’m so angry.”
The DOC spokesperson wrote, “Allegations of sexual misconduct are confidential. They are, however, fully investigated and the outcomes of these investigations are shared with alleged victims, as required by PREA [federal Prison Rape Elimination Act] law.”
Barnhart said, “It can also be hard for transgender people to visit their loved ones in city correctional facilities because the guards give them a hard time about their ID and figuring out who should search them.” She said one young transgender client, Terrianno, “was prevented from visiting her boyfriend because she insisted on being searched by a female guard and they refused. They made some transphobic remarks and then put her on a watch list for the next time.”
The DOC’s training regarding transgender issues has to date been focused on the North Infirmary Command at Rikers where the new transgender unit is housed, but there are plans to expand it to other facilities.
Mariah Lopez, executive director of the Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform (STARR), a leader in advocating for the new unit, said, “I really think they acted in good faith. I am convinced of their resolve. I agree that there is an epidemic of violence and mismanagement in Rikers as a whole. As a trans leader, my gut tells me we’re moving in the right direction.”
She added, “I would remind any trans person when dealing with law enforcement in the courts, with the NYPD, or in custody: if something occurs that does not feel right — from someone slurring your name or gender to physically assaulting you — you have to speak up.”
Lopez is urging Erik Berliner, deputy commissioner for strategic planning and programs at DOC, “to come down hard on these incidents. If he does, we will start to see systemic change. We need to apply their policy of broken windows in reverse and apply it to how law enforcement polices themselves.”
City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, a Jackson Heights Democrat who has been pursuing reform on Rikers Island for years, told Gay City News, “I have visited Rikers on five occasions. It is time for a visit to the transgender unit. Rikers is a hell hole and oftentimes people will plea bargain to get out of there so they can go upstate. I wrote legislation on mandatory reporting to shine light on solitary confinement in Rikers. Could not move it with Bloomberg or Quinn. Finally under this administration we were able to do it. I credit Speaker Mark-Viverito and the mayor for moving my legislation. It tells you why people are being put into solitary, length of stay, and the recreation they get — which is sometimes at 4 a.m. In the past, if they requested special treatment they were put into solitary. Transgender folks should not have to face solitary to be protected. It is the job of DOC to protect our transgender brothers and sisters.”
When the New York City Anti-Violence Project was asked what work it does on behalf of LGBT inmates assaulted in the prisons, a spokesperson said the group does not have a program in the prisons. Inmates, however, can seek counseling after their release. AVP did not respond to a follow-up question about whether it engages in any advocacy with the Department of Correction.