Black Transgender Woman Layleen Polanco Dies in Solitary Confinement at Rikers

A transgender woman’s death at a New York City jail has sparked outrage and a demand for answers. Layleen Polanco was being held in the Restrictive Housing Unit at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island when she was found unresponsive in her cell on June 7. An officer was touring a housing area at the detention center around 2:51 p.m. when they found Polanco, the Department of Correction (DOC) said.

Custodial staff performed CPR on the 27-year-old and used an automated external defibrillator until facility medical staff arrived. At 2:51 p.m., medical staff arrived and determined Polanco was unconscious and provided care for her until she was declared dead at 3:45 p.m, the department said.

The DOC said that Polanco’s cause of death has not been determined, but it was not the result of violence or foul play. Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner’s office, told The North Star that the medical examiner has concluded that “trauma was not found to contribute to this fatality.” The office is performing additional toxicology and medical exams to find the cause of death.

“This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family,” DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in a statement to The North Star. “We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority.”

Social activists, members of the transgender community, and Polanco’s family have demanded answers. On June 10, hundreds of protestors took to the streets in New York City’s Foley Square. Friends and family said that Polanco would not have taken her own life, despite the statement from authorities.

“Layleen would never kill herself because at times during my depression, she would always tell me that’s one thing God will never forgive you for and neither will I,” her friend Christina Vengerovsky said, according to WABC. Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, described her sister as a “very strong” woman who did not believe in death. Her family has hired a civil rights attorney as the medical examiner determines the exact cause of death.

“She had a number of medical issues including a serious seizure disorder,” attorney David Shanies told WABC. “We do know that she certainly was not in a condition where she should’ve been left alone, unmonitored to die alone in the cell.”

Polanco, who was arrested on April 13 and detained since April 16, was due in court to respond to charges of alleged prostitution, possession of a controlled substance, and assaulting a cab driver. The Legal Aid Society, which was representing Polanco, said it was “deeply saddened” by her death.

“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,” Legal Aid Society said in a statement. “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.” Raul A. Contreras, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesman, told The Washington Post that the mayor’s office “will communicate closely with Layleen’s family to ensure they receive the answers they deserve.”

Polanco’s family said they were not satisfied with the DOC’s response to her death. On June 9, they released a statement saying that “the city failed to protect Layleen, and now it is trying to sweep her death under the rug.” They added: “We will not allow it.” Polanco’s death comes on the heels of a number of high profile deaths of Black transgender women. On June 1, the body of 26-year-old Chynal Lindsey was found in White Rock Lake, a city near Dallas, Texas. A month earlier, trans advocate Michelle “Tamika” Washington was shot and killed in Philadelphia.

At least nine Black transgender women have been killed in the United States in 2019, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) said. The advocacy organization also said it was tracking the death of Johana “Joa” Medina, a 25-year-old who died shortly after being released from ICE custody in Texas. The HRC said that at least 26 deaths of transgender people were tracked in 2018.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.