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Whistleblowers Warn of Growing Transphobia, Homophobia in Local Jails

The Legal Aid Society, in response to reporting today from The City and New York Magazine featuring multiple former New York City Department of Correction (DOC) whistleblowers warning of growing transphobia in local jails under DOC Commissioner Louis Molina, called for accountability from City Hall and for the adoption of critical reforms released this past August by the New York City Council’s Task Force on Issues Facing Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming, Non-Binary, and Intersex (TGNCNBI) People in Custody.

The whistleblowers – Kels Savage, Robin Robinson and Maureen Sheehan – previously worked closely with transgender people at Rikers Island, fighting to ensure that these New Yorkers received housing consistent with their gender identity, had access to medical and other essential care, were free from sexual and physical violence while in custody, and were treated with respect and dignity.


Maureen Sheehan

Savage and Robinson both started in DOC’s LGBTQ+ Initiatives, formed under the de Blasio Administration in 2019. The Unit’s stated goal is to “provide individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community with well-rounded programming, resources, and access to LGBTQIA+ affirming services from the moment they enter our facilities, to their discharge, and beyond.”

When Mayor Adams was elected, he appointed Louis Molina as DOC Commissioner, replacing reformist Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi. According to the whistleblowers, around this time, the Unit started to receive more pushback from DOC staff on initiatives. The directive stalled in the approval process and there continues to be no public directive addressing the housing or care of incarcerated TGNCNBI individuals.

“While policies and practices weren’t perfect under Mayor de Blasio, the deliberate indifference expressed by Commissioner Molina to the well-being of incarcerated TGNCNBI New Yorkers truly shocks the soul,” said Mik Kinkead, an attorney with the LGBTQ+ Law & Policy Unit at The Legal Aid Society.

“Commissioner Molina’s actions gutted the LGBTQ+ Initiatives by reducing it to a single employee and he continues to stonewall the Task Force,” he continued. “This sends a clear message that our TGNCNBI clients simply do not matter and what they experience in the jails – the physical and sexual assaults, the daily degradations – is not worthy of time, attention and care from DOC leadership.”

Legal Aid echoes the Task Force’s recommendations, which demand that:

  • Criminal legal system stakeholders facilitate the immediate release of people, including TGNCNBI New Yorkers, from custody.
  • Unless the person feels unsafe, housing within the jails must be based on gender identity.
  • The City and State must provide accessible and affordable housing to all people released from custody, with a focus on TGNCNBI people and their needs, where people have both the dignity of personal space and the necessary assistance of case management, such as referrals to mental health care, medical care, and assistance in accessing basic needs to survive.
  • The City and State to ensure adequate funding for community-based organizations that run alternatives to incarceration and diversionary programs, mental and medical health care, and other services.
  • All officials and employees to treat people who remain in custody humanely and respectfully, conduct housing and safety interviews with every incarcerated TGNCNBI person, and ensure that they have access to affirming health care. These services must be – at minimum – at the same level as what a person would receive when out in the community.
  • Making directives affecting the treatment and housing of TGNCNBI people public and accessible to those in custody.