The Cut: A Trans Woman Was Found Dead in Her Rikers Cell. Now Her Family Wants Answers.

By Amanda Arnold
June 10, 2019

Following the suspicious death of a transgender woman of color in solitary confinement at Rikers, the woman’s family and activists are demanding answers regarding what they see as a disgraceful example of state violence against the trans community.

On June 7, 27-year-old Layleen Polanco was declared dead after being found unresponsive in her cell at the Rose M. Singer Center, a dedicated unit for women, the Washington Post reports. How exactly she died, however, is unclear. According to the New York City Department of Correction, a custodial staff member, and then a medical staff member, attempted to revive Polanco using CPR and a defibrillator around 2:50 p.m. By 3:45 p.m., Polanco was pronounced dead, which the DOC has said was not “the result of violence or foul play.”

“This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family,” Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann told the Post in a statement.

Though the DOC claims that it is actively investigating the woman’s death, Polanco’s family members, activists, and the trans community have been frustrated over the sparse information released so far. Amid the widespread outcry, many have pointed to the rampant violence that the trans community faces, especially behind bars: According to the Bureau of Justice, 34 percent of transgender people held in prison and jail experience at least one incident of sexual violence.

“Ms. Polanco’s passing is a tragic reminder of the heightened risk and physical and emotional torture that transgender people — especially those from communities of color — face in the criminal legal system, particularly while in custody,” the Legal Aid Society, which represented Polanco, said in a statement. “Her heartbreaking and untimely death warrants a swift, complete, independent, and transparent investigation from the City.”

On Monday evening, the outcry escalated when more details pertaining to Polanco’s detainment became public. According to the City, Polanco was being held on $500 bail relating to prostitution and lowest-level drug possession charges dating back to a 2017 arrest, when an undercover cop arrested her for allegedly agreeing to engage in oral sex for money. Following a missed court appearance, there was a warrant out for her; in April of this year, she was arrested for allegedly biting a cab driver. Furthermore, sources told the City that Polanco had been placed in solitary confinement — in a restrictive unit that locks down for 17 hours each day — for her alleged involvement in a fight.

In response to Polanco’s death, Melania Brown, the woman’s sister, has started a GoFundMe to raise money to go toward funeral costs. And, on Monday night, 500-plus people gathered in Foley Square to demand both justice for Polanco and the closure of Rikers.

“My sister was very strong, that’s one thing,” Brown told the crowd at the rally. “She didn’t believe in death. She did not believe in dying.”