Dozens of groups statewide signed a letter delivered to New York State Attorney General Letitia James urging her to take “immediate steps” towards releasing vulnerable transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and intersex (TGNCNBI) individuals from state prisons during the coronavirus crisis.
The June 23 letter, which followed months of advocacy aimed at protecting vulnerable incarcerated populations in the face of a pandemic, stressed that TGNCNBI individuals are especially vulnerable because discrimination in healthcare, employment, education, and housing contributes to worse health outcomes.
“This leads to higher rates of HIV, additional chronic conditions such as hepatitis B and C, substance use, and poorly controlled pre-existing medical conditions,” stated the letter, which included New York Transgender Advocacy Group, Housing Works, Legal Aid Society, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Release Aging People in Prison, Gays Against Guns, Make the Road New York, Equality New York, Human Rights Campaign, interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth, Spectrum Transgender Group of WNY, and the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan, among others.
Additionally, the letter cited discriminatory policies that force transgender folks to be housed with those who do not share their gender identity.
“For transgender women, in particular, this results in frighteningly high rates of sexual abuse and assault while in prison, conduct that is likely to increase as anxieties and tensions rise due to the pandemic and its anticipated second wave,” the letter noted. “The constant stress of being on-guard for the next assault further weakens the immune systems, making an already vulnerable population more at risk.”
The groups blasted James’ office for showing “little compassion or concern for TGNCBI people seeking release because their health and, indeed, lives are at serious risk in the congregate setting of a prison.”
The letter laid out one example of a 63-year-old transgender woman, Cathy Citro, who suffers from diabetes, severe asthma, and heart conditions but is housed in a male facility where there has been 19 positive coronavirus cases. The groups argue that she could be spared from the risk of premature death if she is allowed to return home early.
“But your office is vigorously fighting her release, every day putting her at greater risk of contracting the virus,” the groups added.
The letter also cited a Black transgender woman who is living with HIV, has a history of lung complications, and suffers from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual exploitation.
“Currently living in a dormitory setting, she has no ability to distance herself from others or take necessary steps to keep herself safe,” the letter explained. “Again, your office is not only fighting her release, it also misgendered her in legal papers showing an overall lack of concern or engagement with these proceedings.”
Pressure mounts on attorney general to stand up for vulnerable populations in COVID era
The groups pointed to a list of elected officials — including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, out gay Councilmembers Daniel Dromm of Queens and Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, and the New York Congressional Delegation — who have asked Governor Andrew Cuomo to use his power to give relief to the vulnerable incarcerated populations.
“These pleas to take the lives of all New Yorkers seriously have received no answer or acknowledgement, as if we are speaking into a void,” the groups wrote.
In the end, the organizations asked James for a virtual meeting so advocates can speak directly with her and her staff in an effort to “find a way to save the lives of our distressed community members.”
On July 2, advocates again asked folks statewide to encourage James to move on the issue. Equality New York sent out an email asking New Yorkers to either sign a petition directed at James or share the campaign on Twitter by posting a tweet that reads, “@NewYorkStateAG we demand that you support the release of incarcerated medically vulnerable Transgender & Non-Binary people from state prisons now. https://bit.ly/3dMBjRv #ReleaseThem.”
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