Published on Jun 25, 2020
Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died in June 2019 while incarcerated at Rikers Island, was not housed in an area of the jail that was appropriately suited to her mental and physical health needs, according to a new report from New York City’s jail oversight board.
According to the review, the Department of Corrections (DOC) was determined to not house a transgender woman in general population housing areas where cisgender women are held — though Rikers officials did, however, discuss placing Polanco in a men’s ward. This unwillingness led to Polanco being placed instead in a Restrictive Housing Unit, a form of solitary confinement, after her return from a hospital where she had been receiving psychiatric care.
In recent weeks, Polanco’s death has recaptured national attention and sparked a new wave of outrage, following outcry last year over her detention in solitary confinement, after video footage emerged showing that Rikers’ staff allegedly neglected to provide her with life-saving care.
Polanco, who was arrested for allegedly assaulting a cab driver and for possession of a controlled substance and was being held on a $500 bail, died on June 7, 2019 following an epileptic seizure, according to a medical examiner.
In June 2020, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark announced that no criminal charges would be sought following an investigation into Polanco’s death. Clark’s statement was harshly criticized by Polanco’s family for publishing her birth name, a practice known as deadnaming.
Now, a new report from the New York City Board of Corrections (BOC) reviewing the circumstances of Polanco’s death shows that jail staff did not properly take her history of mental health issues into account before putting her in solitary confinement. The Correctional Health Service’s (CHS) process for identifying those who should be exempt from solitary confinement due to their medical and mental health history is “insufficient, inconsistent, and potentially susceptible to undue pressure” from the DOC, per the report, which noted the problem is among systemic issues impacting the entire NYC DOC system.
Polanco’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against New York City and a number of Rikers employees. With the release surveillance video showing jail guards trying to revive Polanco for about an hour and a half before they sought medical help, her family spoke out to say the footage was evidence that the jail’s staff had neglected to give her necessary care.
LGBTQ civil rights activists have pointed to Polanco’s treatment as further evidence that jailed transgender people often face unduly harsh punishment for minor infractions.
While Polanco had initially been held in a Transgender Housing Unit dormitory, she was charged with violating the DOC’s rules after a physical altercation with another individual in the dorm and, following a May 14 disciplinary hearing, sentenced to 20 days in solitary confinement.
The following day, Polanco began exhibiting signs of mental distress, according to the report. In its review, the BOC cited a Rikers officer who wrote Polanco a referral to mental health services, noting on May 15 that she was “expressing a desire to commit suicide and/or attempting suicide,” frequently “shouting, crying and/or screaming,” “having hallucinations/delusions” and “being alarmed (frightened) or in a state of panic,” among several other signs symptoms indicative of psychological distress.