Deb Lolai Testified Before City Council on Sexual Abuse and Harassment in City Jails

New York City Council

Committee on Criminal Justice, Committee on Justice System & Committee on Women

Joint Oversight Hearing on

Sexual Abuse and Harassment in City Jails

September 6, 2018

Testimony of The Bronx Defenders

By Deborah Lolai

Good morning, Chair Lancman, Chair Powers, Chair Rosenthal and committee members. My name is Deborah Lolai and I am a criminal defense attorney and the LGBTQ client specialist at The Bronx Defenders. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on this important matter.

The Bronx Defenders is a community-based and nationally recognized holistic public defender office dedicated to serving the people of the Bronx. The Bronx Defenders provides innovative, holistic, client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration representation, civil legal services, social work support, and other advocacy to indigent people of the Bronx. Our staff of over 300 represents approximately 28,000 individuals each year. In the Bronx and beyond, The Bronx Defenders promotes criminal justice reform to dismantle the culture of mass incarceration.

I am here today to speak about experiences of sexual abuse and harassment against transgender women in city jails. As part of my role as the LGBTQ Client Specialist, each year I represent hundreds of transgender people who are facing criminal charges, many of whom are or have been incarcerated pre-trial.

I will start by sharing this simple fact: Nearly 100% of transgender women are sexually abused or harassed while incarcerated in our city jails, and this is because they are placed in men’s jails.   

The process of a transgender woman being arrested and incarcerated in New York City is as follows: When a transgender woman is arrested, she is placed in men’s holding cells, or in a cell by herself, by the NYPD. She is then brought to Central Bookings and is placed in cell with men, or in a cell by herself, while she awaits her arraignment. Throughout this process, she is the subject of jokes and ridicule about her gender identity by officers. If bail is set or if she is remanded, she will go through intake through the Department of Corrections, which determines where she will be placed. From the initial contact with the NYPD through the end of incarceration, the experiences of transgender women are horrific.

In New York City, there is a Transgender Housing Unit (THU). The THU is a unit that transgender women can apply to be placed in during their incarceration. It was created as a result of the disproportionate rate of sexual abuse against incarcerated transgender women. There is a limited number of beds at the THU. Applications are regularly rejected, and it can be days or even months before a transgender woman is placed there. At best, the THU has been managed inadequately. Transgender women should always be informed about the option of being placed in the THU but, as a recent Board of Corrections’ (BOC) report shows, they regularly are not. In fact, what I hear regularly from my clients is that when a transgender woman already knows about the existence of the THU, they are discouraged by DOC staff from making a request to be placed there.

As a result, transgender women are sent to men’s jails – either in protective custody or in general population. This is why sexual abuse and harassment occurs at such an alarming rate against transgender women. It is happening at the hands of other inmates and Corrections officers. The experiences of our clients range from being called insulting transphobic names, to being forced to pull down their bras by male correction officers and having their breasts fondled, to being raped.

This happens every day to transgender women in our city jails. I will briefly share several clients’ stories among the many dozens I know:

The first client I will tell you about is a young transgender woman who was incarcerated at a men’s jail as she was awaiting trial. Prior to her arrest, she was a homeless because her family rejected her after she came out as transgender. During her incarceration at Rikers Island, she was raped by an inmate and severely traumatized. After this, she lived every moment of her incarceration with extreme fear. She did not have a criminal record prior to her arrest, and she was not guilty of the crime she was charged with. Yet she pled guilty to a felony because doing so meant she would get out of jail and not have to live with the constant threat of being raped again. This is a common experience and occurence.

Another client of mine was also incarcerated in the men’s unit at Rikers Island. She was placed in general population, where she was raped in the shower. After reporting the rape, she was placed in protective custody, in the same facility where she was attacked. Three days later, another inmate was able to come into her cell during count and she was raped again.

These are stories that need to be told. They need to be told because we are failing to keep incarcerated transgender women safe.

The bills before your Committees today — requiring period public reporting of lock-ins and incidents of sexual abuse among residents of, and visitors to, the City’s jails — are a small but important step toward increased transparency in this crucial area long overdue for reform. The Bronx Defenders strongly supports them all.

In addition, the Mayor announced on April 16th of this year that by October 16th all inmates would be housed in accordance with their gender identity. We are unaware of any significant planning by DOC to make this real, have grave doubt about whether it will occur, and urge the Council to monitor the situation closely and to schedule an oversight hearing before the end of the year.

Thank you.