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Photo by Michael Shain
Rikers Island now features a housing area for inmates who served in the U.S. Armed Forces which will have specialized programs designed to help them reenter society.
By Bill Parry

The city Department of Correction has opened the first housing area exclusively for military veterans at its Rikers Island prison complex, and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced city jails will house inmates according to their gender identity as a safe housing option for transgender prisoners.

The Veterans Unit will be housed at the Anna M. Kross Center and will offer those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces a series of enrichment programs tailor-made to their history of service such as work with correction officers and counselors who share military service as well as collaboration with the city’s Department of Veterans Services and other veterans groups.

The ultimate goal is to offer a comprehensive re-entry plan designed around their shared experiences of serving the United States.

“The department is proud to recognize veterans in our custody with this special unit,” Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said. “There are individuals who served our country and deserve a housing area dedicated to their specific needs as they move forward with their lives. DOC will provide opportunities for these servicemen and make sure they receive respect and dedicated assistance.”

The occupants will consist of self-reported veterans who are interested in joining the unit. The city’s Department of Veterans Services will confirm prior military experience and once moved into the unit, participants will undergo an orientation and complete a questionnaire in order to develop a targeted programming and re-entry plan.

“Veterans share a unique bond that serves as a foundation for what can be a transformational social support network,” Department of Veterans Services Commissioner Loree Sutton, a medical doctor and retired brigadier general. “We look forward to working together on this historic endeavor.”

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the DOC will house inmates consistent with their gender identity in a Transgender Housing Unit it will maintain with the city Commission on Human Rights. The DOC will continue to conduct individualized risk assessments of inmates when assigning safe and gender-affirming housing options to provide for the health and safety of inmates and DOC staff.

“It’s the city’s responsibility to protect the rights and safety of all New Yorkers, and that means protecting transgender individuals in the city jails as well,” de Blasio said. “New York City is one of the first major cities to commit to taking this step, and it’s crucial to ensuring all of our facilities are welcoming and safe for all New Yorkers, no matter their gender identity.”

In 2012, 40 percent of transgender prisoners were sexually abused compared to 4 percent of prisoners in general, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“No one should feel unsafe for being who they are,” NYC Commission on Human Rights Chair and Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis said. “Housing incarcerated individuals consistent with their gender identity is not only about dignity and respect but an important recognition of the unique challenges and vulnerabilities transgender and non-conforming individuals face in correction facilities nationwide.”

Many U.S. cities and states force transgender and gender non-conforming inmates into solitary confinement or house inmates according to their gender assigned at birth, putting them at higher risk for physical and sexual violence, according to City Hall.

“Housing detainees consistent with their gender identity acknowledges their basic humanity and is the right thing to do,” City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said. “This development marks a big step forward for human rights in our city. It is my hope that this progressive reform will serve as a model for cities across the nation who seek to make similar policy advancements. While we still have much to do in order to make our jails places of rehabilitation, I am pleased we are moving in the right direction.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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