Rikers Island Unit to Protect Transgender Inmates Runs Afoul of Federal Segregation Guidelines

The city says it wants to protect inmates from sexual assault on Rikers Island. But by complying with federal guidelines it may have to get rid of a special unit that does just that. Our Courtney Gross explains.

There are not a lot of transgender inmates on Rikers Island.

"Generally they are at risk in jails and prisons," said Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte. "There are safety issues and safety concerns."

Two years ago, the city's Department of Correction set up a segregated unit on Rikers where transgender female inmates would be held — safely.

Now, because of a federal regulation the city is trying to comply with, that special unit may be phased out.

"It's our understanding it would be contrary to the current law as we have the unit set up today," the Correction Commissioner said.

The Board of Correction approved new rules on Tuesday to make the city comply with much of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. On its face, it is a firm commitment to reduce sexual assaults in jails.

But part of that federal regulation prohibits the segregation of transgender inmates based on their anatomy, which means it threatens the city's transgender unit.

"So we are not going to close the unit today, but we are going to try to work with the advocates to find a way to keep the unit open to everyone's satisfaction but we have to deal with the contrary piece of the law," Commissioner Ponte said.

Elsewhere the department was trying to avoid controversy. It actually withdrew a proposal for an area known as the West Facility. That area houses some of the island's most dangerous inmates.

Both advocates and the department's oversight board have slammed the administration for housing dangerous inmates and inmates in protective custody in the same area at the West Facility. Critics claim the department keeps those inmates locked in their cells for too long, violating their own standards.

"It's a permanent solitary confinement unit for people in protective custody whose problem is they need special protection," said Dr. Robert Cohen, with the Board of Correction.

"There may be some things we fundamentally disagree on, but we are really not there yet," Ponte said.

The department says it will continue to work with the board to come up with a compromise.

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