trans rights

What Really Happened to Layleen Polanco?

Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco. Photo: Facebook

Last June, Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, an Afro-Latinx trans woman, died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail after suffering an epileptic seizure. She was 27 years old. A year after her death, the New York City Board of Corrections released a report detailing the horrific neglect Polanco had suffered leading up to her death in state custody; now, two months later, her family has agreed to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit with the city for $5.9 million. The terms of the settlement, other than the amount, have not been made public.

Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, told The City that justice for Layleen will not be won until the corrections officers whose gross neglect led to her death are fired. “This is just the beginning of justice for my sister. This is not even close to being justice for her,” Brown said. “Justice would be holding those people who had something to do with my sister’s death accountable for their actions.” The city’s Law Department said in a statement on Sunday, “The death of Ms. Polanco was an absolute tragedy, and our thoughts remain with her family and loved ones. The city will continue to do everything it can to make reforms towards a correction system that is fundamentally safer, fairer, and more humane.”

According to the report compiled by New York City’s Board of Correction in June of this year, Polanco was neglected while incarcerated at Rikers, where she awaited trial for misdemeanor charges because she was unable to afford her $500 bail. She was taken to the notorious island jail facility in mid-April 2019; during her intake, she made it clear that she suffered from a seizure disorder. On May 15, she was transferred to Elmhurst hospital’s psychiatric prison ward after experiencing “radical changes in behavior” that included shouting, crying, hallucinations, expressing suicidal ideation, and panic. When she returned to the jail nine days later, officials reportedly put her in solitary confinement, failed to check on her for long stretches of time, and neglected to inform the guards who checked in on her that she had a history of seizures. Polanco was ordered to the solitary cell for 20 days; on the ninth day, she died.

Jail officials egregiously mishandled Polanco’s case. The report finds that the Correctional Health Services’ very methods for determining whether someone’s medical history exempts them from stints in solitary confinement are “insufficient, inconsistent, and potentially susceptible to undue pressure from the [Department of Corrections (DOC)].” In the days before Polanco’s death, at least one psychiatrist actively opposed putting her in solitary due to her medical history of seizures, but their advice was disregarded. A medical examiner determined that Polanco’s cause of death was a seizure brought on by her epilepsy.

The Board of Correction also describes how the DOC used the jail’s outrageous policy of housing trans women separate from cis women in the general population to justify Polanco’s placement in solitary. Upon her return to Rikers, the DOC “had difficulty identifying an appropriate place to house her.” It claimed she’d already had a history of interpersonal conflict in the two Transgender Housing Unit dorms in which she’d been detained prior to hospitalization, and that placing her in the general population was impossible due to regulatory segregation between trans and cis women. The result was “increased pressure” to incarcerate Polanco in a solitary unit “unsuitable to manage both her medical and mental health needs.”

The investigation was published two weeks after Polanco’s family released footage that shows what happened leading up to her death: In the video, Rikers guards can be seen knocking on the door to her cell intermittently, sometimes letting as many as 40 minutes elapse between checks. When they finally open the door, three guards stand outside, laughing. Less than ten minutes later, medical staff arrive with a body board.

In the weeks before the report was published, despite mounting pressure from Polanco’s family and from activists, who argued that her death could have been prevented if her medical needs had not been totally disregarded, Bronx district attorney Darcel Clark said that her office’s investigation had turned up no staffers at Rikers who could be held criminally responsible for Polanco’s death. But on June 26, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 17 corrections officers would be disciplined for their roles in Polanco’s deaths. De Blasio said that one captain and three other officers were suspended without pay, adding: “What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability.”

Although the mayor did not elaborate on the nature of the charges, the New York Times reported that they may include “failure to tour, inefficient performance, and making fraudulent logbook entries.”

In a statement responding to the BOC’s June report, Jeanette Merrill, a spokesperson for Correctional Health Services, said the agency disagrees “with the conclusions the Board reached in the report, as well as the misguided recommendations regarding the clinical care that was provided.”

Regardless of whom the DOC considers suitable — or not — for imprisonment in segregated units, the United Nations considers prolonged solitary confinement to be a form of human torture. It can be particularly deleterious for people with underlying mental-health conditions because it inflicts immense psychological harm. A 2014 study of New York City jails found that incarcerated people who are placed in solitary are significantly more likely to attempt self-harm in the jail than those who are not.

This piece has been updated.

What Really Happened to Layleen Polanco?