Council committee backs bills aimed at protecting transgender people in custody

The bills are aimed at improving the treatment of transgender, gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary and intersex people in custody. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

The action comes after Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, was found dead in her cell on Rikers Island.

The bills are aimed at improving the treatment of transgender, gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary and intersex people in custody.
The bills are aimed at improving the treatment of transgender, gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary and intersex people in custody. Photo Credit: Li Yakira Cohen

Less than a month after a transgender woman was found dead in her cell on Rikers Island, a City Council committee has thrown its support behind several bills aimed at improving the treatment of transgender, gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary and intersex people in custody.

Layleen Polanco, 27, was pronounced dead on June 7 after spending nine days in solitary confinement.

On Wednesday, the City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice approved four bills introduced in April, before Polanco’s death.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2018 that transgender inmates in New York City would be housed with the gender they identify with, however, lawmakers have heard reports that transgender individuals are more frequently put in solitary or isolated settings, according to Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal’s office. They often struggle to access healthcare and suffer disproportionately high rates of sexual abuse in jail, according to Rosenthal’s office. 

Two of the bills would keep those who identify as transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary and intersex (TGNCNBI) from having to choose between receiving adequate treatment and “being housed in an environment that is more appropriate and safe for their needs,” according to a committee report.

One piece of legislation aims to ensure those groups receive the same access to comprehensive mental health services as others in custody and would require medical and substance abuse professionals who work with transgender people to receive specialized training. Another aims to ensure equitable substance abuse treatment in custody and would require patient consent, according to the committee report.   

A third bill would require the city’s Department of Correction to report to the City Council and Board of Correction on any housing decisions it makes for TGNCNBI people, to “bring greater transparency into the application and appeals process for those who seek housing within the DOC that is responsive to their gender identity,” the report said.

The fourth bill calls for a Board of Correction task force that would review the DOC’s policies on the treatment of TGNCNBI people in custody.

The task force would include representatives from the city, as well as “experts in transgender policy” and “people with lived experiences,” Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal — the prime sponsor of the bill — said in a statement.

Polanco’s death “represents a terrible failure by the city of New York,” she said in her statement.

“The circumstances surrounding Layleen Polanco’s death are all too common: a young person of color is arrested on a low-level charge; cash bail is required; and time is spent in solitary confinement,” she said. “This tragedy underscores the need for greater accountability and transparency on how the city treats transgender, gender non-conforming, nonbinary and intersex people in its custody.”

Maya Rajamani