In the midst of controversy engulfing the city’s Department of Correction following the death of a transgender woman in its custody, an out lesbian has assumed the new post of director of LGBTQ+ initiatives.
Elizabeth Munsky, who has seven years experience serving in a variety of queer-specific roles and most recently worked in the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, was tapped to serve in the new DOC role. She is tasked with addressing the treatment of LGBTQ people in custody, the training of staff members, and more.
Munsky told Gay City News during a July 24 interview that she accepted the position in April and started her job with the DOC in “late June,” which came after Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco died while being held in restrictive housing at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island on June 7. Polanco’s family, LGBTQ community activists, and many others have demanded explanations about her death from the DOC and the city as a whole, but answers have been frustratingly scarce. An attorney representing Polanco’s family has vowed to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.
Questions about Polanco’s death asked in connection with this story were referred to the office of Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, with the DOC citing an “ongoing investigation.” A spokesperson for Clark told Gay City News that the death is under investigation by the DA’s Public Integrity Bureau, which investigates deaths of those in custody on Rikers Island.
As the DOC continues to weather controversy regarding Polanco, Munsky is settling into her position and has begun work on a variety of LGBTQ issues.
“My role encapsulates both individuals in custody as well as staff members here at the Department of Correction,” Munsky explained. “I see my role in an assessment stage to see what is currently in place, where some policies are, where those gaps are, and to fill in those gaps.”
Munksy summed up her current “assessment stage” in four different areas: to review programs for both people in custody and staff members, gain an understanding of how data is being collected, examine “buckets” of policy, and train and educate staff on LGBTQ issues.
Munsky has started touring jails to engage with LGBTQ inmates and develop an understanding of the issues they are facing while behind bars.
“If there are detainees that have already acknowledged that they are LGBTQ, the staff ensures I speak with those individuals directly to hear what their needs are,” she said.
Among her immediate goals, she said, is to develop programs to assist LGBTQ individuals currently in custody as well as other initiatives related to re-entry programs tailored for LGBTQ inmates preparing for life on the outside. She is also working with the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL), a group of LGBTQ law enforcement officials in the city, including DOC staff, to support their initiatives.
Her duties are expected to include working with elected officials, other city agencies, and organizations in local communities. To that end, she has started organizing a resource fair for LGBTQ organizations to go to the facilities housing queer inmates in an effort to make them familiar with the support available to them after their release.
Issues surrounding the housing of LGBTQ inmates — especially trans folks — will undoubtedly continue to be contested during Munsky’s tenure. Prior to Polanco’s death, the incarceration of transgender people had already emerged as a national issue after the deaths of several trans women held in the custody of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The DOC has a housing unit in its female facility that is available to transgender women — who make up the vast majority of the trans population in city custody — but when asked about that effort, the agency said there is currently no dedicated housing unit for trans men.
“To date, transgender males in our custody have ultimately preferred to reside in general population in the female facility, but the department remains open to alternative housing placements should the request arise,” a department spokesperson said in a written statement.
Munsky will have her work cut out for her in that area. In a clear sign of discontent over the DOC’s practices, multiple attorneys representing transgender inmates have challenged the agency’s narrative on its approach to that issue.
Deborah Lolai, a criminal defense attorney and LGBTQ crime specialist with the Bronx Defenders, said during a City Council hearing on May 1 that “the majority of trans women who I represent who have been incarcerated have been in a male facility. Contrary to what has been testified to, they are not there by choice.”
And Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, who has worked as a public defender, told Gay City News in April that one of her trans clients “was thrown into a holding area with men as she awaited a hearing.” Cabán said her client was growing facial hair for the first time in a long time — a clear sign she was suffering medical mistreatment from the withholding of hormones. Cabán also said that the Manhattan Detention Center can hold 50 to 60 people in its housing unit for trans women, and that many trans women are thrown into solitary confinement.
When this account was mentioned during this interview, a DOC spokesperson jumped in and denied such things take place, saying, “The only way anyone ends up in a punitive segregation situation is a result of serious infraction.”
Those kinds of concerns prompted the City Council to pass a series of measures in June — the same month Munsky started her new job — bolstering protections for trans inmates. One bill establishes a task force on issues facing transgender and gender non-conforming people in custody, while another piece of legislation requires the DOC to report on housing decisions regarding TGNC inmates. Lawmakers also passed bills requiring facilities housing TGNC people to provide mental health treatment and access to comprehensive substance abuse treatment. Those measures were signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, but they did not come without resistance from the DOC: Faye Yelardy, the agency’s assistant commissioner for the Office of Sexual Abuse and Sexual Harassment Prevention, testified that “the department cannot support” the task force bill.
Munsky will face a tall order in helping to implement those initiatives, but she is confident her work experience prior to joining the agency has prepared her for such challenges. Before working in the mayor’s office, she was a program manager at Live Out Loud, a nonprofit that provides mentoring and education opportunities for LGBTQ youth, and a training and leadership manager at the Queens and Long Island-based LGBT Network.
“I began to see that the work I wanted to do was not just for the LGBTQ community but for those who have been most on the margins, whose voices have been tamped down more than others,” Munsky said. “When this position arose, it put all of my experience under one sector to uplift those voices.”
Those in DOC leadership say they will support the work to improve conditions for LGBTQ inmates. DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said, in a written statement, “We remain committed to working with advocates and members of the LGBTQ+ community to ensure that our policies provide safe, fair, and respectful treatment of our LGBTQ+ population,” while Michael Tausek, the deputy commissioner of programs and community partnerships, said, “The addition of the LGBTQ+ director to the programs department is another way for us to be successful at doing that job.”