Rikers Opens New Housing for Transgender Women

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A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island penitentiary complex is seen on May 17, 2011 where IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn is being held in New York. The grand jury deciding whether or not to send Strauss-Kahn to trial has until May 20th to decide. In the meantime, Strauss-Kahn, accused of attempting to rape a hotel maid, remains incarcerated without bail because a judge deemed him liable to attempt escape to France, which does not extradite citizens to the United States.  AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Transgender women incarcerated at Rikers Island are getting their own housing unit starting Tuesday, because, despite what Orange Is the New Black would have you believe, most of them don’t simply run hair salons at women’s prisons. A 30-bed unit will provide a safe space apart from the other inmates, say advocates who insist that in prison transgender women are especially at risk.

Most imprisoned trans women are kept with the male general population. Just like in the outside world, they are often targets of violence, and frequently seek out solitary confinement for their own safety. Women who do so spend 23 hours a day alone and are allowed out for just one hour each day. 

Just the inherent nature of being a trans-identified woman and being placed in a male facility, it puts you in an extreme position of vulnerability,” Kim Forte, an attorney with Legal Aid, told WNYC. In contrast, the new unit should be able to house nearly all the trans women in custody at Rikers at any given time in a more typical setup.

This isn’t the city’s first attempt at a unit for queer prisoners, either. The old one was abolished in 2005 because, city corrections commissioner Martin Horn told the New York Times at the time, the unit itself had ceased being a safe space. “It was the only area of the department where inmates could choose where they wanted to live,” irrespective of what kind of offenses they had committed, he said. “What we ended up with was this housing unit where people were predatory and people were vulnerable. The very units that should be the most safe, in fact, had become the least safe.”