By Igor Derysh
June 11, 2019
A transgender woman was found dead in her cell on New York’s Rikers Island, leading to calls for the notorious prison to be shut down.
Layleen Polanco, 27, was found unresponsive in her cell at the Rikers women’s facility on Friday afternoon, Bronx News 12 reported.
Custodial staff performed CPR until medics arrived. Polanco was pronounced dead about an hour after she was found.
Polanco had an illness that caused sudden seizures, News 12 reported, but the cause of death has yet to be determined.
The New York City Department of Corrections told the outlet that there were no signs of violence or foul play. An investigation is ongoing.
Polanco was arrested in mid-April for allegedly attacking a cab driver and possession of a controlled substance.
Her sister told News 12 that Polanco was due to be released in about a week.
Polanco’s Family Says They Won’t Let Her Death Be ‘Swept Under the Rug’
Polanco, who was also known as Layleen Xtravaganza, was a member of the house-ballroom community House of Xtravaganza, The Root reported. Polanco was the 10th black trans woman to be found dead this year.
Judy Troilo, executive director of the pro-LGBT group The Loft, told News 12 that she believes the response to Polanco’s death was “delayed.”
“The first time I heard about it was this morning, which makes me think the response was delayed. And we see that a lot in the trans community, especially trans women of color,” she said.
An attorney for the family told News 12 that they “will not allow Layleen’s death to be swept under the rug.”
Polanco’s sister, Melania Cubilette, wrote on GoFundMe that the family was notified “she was found dead in her cell with not much information.”
“They still haven’t gave us the family any information only run around,” she added in an update Sunday.
“As we gather to mourn this tremendous loss, we are left shocked and outraged by the stony silence from the Department of Correction, Mayor’s Office, NYPD, and City government,” the family said in a statement. “The family demands answers and we are entitled to them. The City failed to protect Layleen, and now it is trying to sweep her death under the rug. We will not allow it.”
The Department of Corrections said it will conduct a full investigation.
“This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family,” Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in a statement. “We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority.”
The Loft and supporters are calling on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials to shut down Rikers Island, News 12 reported.
Activists held a rally Monday to demand answers on Polanco’s death.
“This tragic loss of yet another member of the trans community comes just days after the start of Pride season,” organizers of the rally wrote. “There is no pride to be had while trans folks continue to face an epidemic of fatal violence.”
The Legal Aid society said in a statement that it is joining the family in “demanding justice” for Layleen.
“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 statement said. “Her heartbreaking and untimely death warrants a swift, complete, independent, and transparent investigation from the City. We join New Yorkers in demanding justice for Ms. Polanco, her family, and for her community.”
Polanco was a member of the House of Extravaganza, one of the most prominent “houses” in New York’s underground ballroom scene.
Janet Mock, who directed “Pose,” an FX series about the New York ballroom culture, said in a statement to Vibe that she is “heartbroken and enraged from the harsh reality that Layleen Polanco, who was incarcerated on Rikers Island.”
“Folks are gathering Monday in NYC and collecting donations to help lay her to rest. We need to check and challenge anyone seeking to police our bodies, genders, and identities. Rest in power, Layleen,” Mock said.
Indiya Moore, who stars in “Pose,” tweeted that she “grew up looking to Layleen as my goal.”
“She was one of the most beautiful women I ever seen who was trans. She and so many other girls were an example to me,” Moore wrote. “She was a member of my house, Xtravaganza. She died in her cell in Rikers.”