Op-Ed | New York must protect incarcerated Trans people by passing the GIRDS Act now

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Prisons and jails are inherently dehumanizing and needlessly cruel places for all human beings—but especially for Transgender people. For us, that cruelty is compounded by traumatizing experiences of harassment, mistreatment, and violence faced due to our gender identity or expression. 

In New York State, a 2017 survey found nearly all incarcerated trans and gender nonconforming people reported verbal harassment and being called derogatory names by corrections staff. The vast majority of such harassment was related to sexual identity or gender expression. Over nine in 10 respondents reported at least one form of physical assault while incarcerated, and three-quarters reported sexual violence by corrections staff. 

This violence is intensified when Trans people are housed in jails or prisons that do not align with their gender identity—which is currently the norm in most parts of the state. Being housed alongside men as a trans woman creates an amalgam of trauma, fear, and humiliation. I know this firsthand as someone who was placed in a county jail with cisgender men. My time there was the most traumatic period of my life. I was mocked by correction officers for my gender and sexually harassed by my cell mate. Trans men placed in facilities that don’t align with their gender identity, too, face sexual harassment, discrimination, and violence. 

Thankfully, there is a solution our elected leaders can act on right now by passing the Gender Identity Respect, Dignity, and Safety (GIRDS) Act. 

The GIRDS Act would improve safety for people of all genders by ensuring people are housed consistent with their gender identities, unless they choose to opt out. Prisons and jails would be required to ensure access to gender-affirming clothing, toiletries, and medical services. 

Corrections staff would be required to respect an individual’s gender identity in all contexts—including name and pronouns, as well as during searches. This basic modicum of decency incarcerated Trans people are owed isn’t just a courtesy: we know that “pronouns are a public health issue.”

The bill would also limit involuntary protective custody to 14 days—a measure many trans people find themselves in under the guise of “protection.” Involuntary protective custody is functionally equivalent to solitary confinement, which is internationally recognized as a form of torture at 15 days.

While I believe our society should move towards less incarceration overall, I also believe that our policy makers and corrections staff at jails and prisons have a responsibility to protect the people in state custody. 

Lawmakers first introduced the GIRDS Act in 2021, but it has since languished in committees. Since then, the New York Civil Liberties Union has sued the state in court successfully multiple times, resulting in at least two counties implementing GIRDS, and a slew of others voluntarily following suit. How many more times must county jails be sued in order for policy makers to realize that the most cost effective measure would be to pass the bill in Albany and apply it across the board? The GIRDS Act is about bringing the rest of the state in alignment.

We—the Trans community and our allies—have waited long enough. Lawmakers can no longer hide behind their willful ignorance or inability to see through problematic stereotypes that dictate who is or isn’t trans enough for gender aligned presumptive placement. Each day that Albany stalls on taking action, incarcerated Trans people are directly placed in harm’s way.

Connecticut already has a statewide policy ensuring incarcerated trans people are housed according to their gender identity, and New Jersey is required to do so under a 2021 settlement. Notwithstanding, a federal judge just recently upheld California’s Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act. 

Now, it’s time for New York to act.

To the legislature and Governor Hochul: let’s put New York on a pathway towards becoming the true “safe haven” we claim to be and pass the GIRDS Act now.

Crespo is the executive director of the NEW Pride Agenda.