One of the America’s few jail facilities specifically for gay or transgender prisoners is closing on Rikers Island, prompting complaints from gay rights activists who say it is still a much-needed safe haven.

The unit, which opened on the city’s island prison complex in the late 1970s in reply to complaints of abusive treatment of homosexuals in the prison system, stopped accepting new inmates last month at the direction of Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn.

The facility could be shut entirely within the next few weeks. The prison has accommodation for up to 146 prisoners, but was holding 126 when it began emptying on November 28th of this year. As of Thursday, 56 prisoners remained.

Plans call for the specialized unit to be replaced with a new protective custody system that would be available to prisoners who feel threatened, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The change has alarmed members of some civil liberties and gay rights groups, who note that the new protective housing would likely be more restrictive than the old unit.

Prisoners whose safety was at risk would be locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, rather than be allowed to mingle with other inmates. Prisoners could avoid the extra restrictions by staying in the jail’s general population, but there, they might be subject to harassment or worse, activists said.

“We’re not talking about people calling you names,” said D. Horowitz, a legal fellow at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. “People should not be punished for wanting to be safe.”

Eighteen groups sent a letter to Horn on Thursday asking him to reconsider, including the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Legal Aid Society, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Correction Department spokesman Tom Antenen said the unit, which held only a fraction of the gay inmates at Rikers, was being done away with as part of a broader restructuring of the jail’s prisoner classification system.

“Jail administrators have no intention of ignoring Rikers inmates who say they feel threatened because of their sexuality,” Mr Antenen said.

“If that is the case, and they need to be protected from the general population, then we will endeavour to provide the best possible security,” he said. That could include a “23-hour lockdown,” or it might entail moving them to a different city facility.

Specialized housing units for gay prisoners are rare in the U.S., although jails in a few other places do have them. The Federal Bureau of Prisons does not maintain such units anywhere in the country, nor do state prisons in New York.

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