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NYC Halts Solitary Confinement After Trans Inmate Layleen Polanco Dies

Layleen Polanco

Seventeen corrections officers at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex will be disciplined in connection with the death of transgender woman Layleen Polanco, and now Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced plans to end solitary confinement in the city’s jails.

“Layleen Polanco should not have been in Rikers to begin with,” de Blasio said at a Monday press conference. “Layleen Polanco should not have been in solitary confinement. And lord knows she deserves justice. Her family deserves justice, the transgender community deserves justice; we have to right the wrong. We can’t bring her back, but we can make change so that no one else goes through such a tragedy.”

Polanco died June 7, 2019, due to an epileptic seizure while in solitary confinement, a.k.a. “punitive segregation,” at Rikers. She had been jailed two months earlier because she could not pay $501 cash bail after having been arrested on various misdemeanor charges and an outstanding warrant.

She had informed jail officials of her history of seizures. She was transferred to a hospital in May 2019 after striking an officer, and when she returned to Rikers, one psychiatrist refused to approve solitary confinement for Polanco because of her health condition. Another approved it, however, saying her condition had stabilized.

Officers were supposed to check on her every 15 minutes, but on the day she died, they let much more time pass — 35 minutes at one point, 41 at another, and 57 at another, The New York Times reports.

Three weeks ago, the city’s Department of Investigation and the Bronx district attorney’s office declined to bring criminal charges against any of the officers. But an oversight body, the Board of Corrections, “issued a scathing report detailing a series of failures that it said had probably contributed to Ms. Polanco’s death,” including the lengthy periods that elapsed without officers checking on her, according to the Times.

De Blasio announced Friday that the 17 officers would be disciplined, with a captain and three others being suspended without pay immediately, the paper reports. He did not specify actions against the others.

Then Monday, de Blasio announced that the city would end solitary confinement and find other, better ways to assure the safety of both prisoners and jail staff. It has already ended the practice for young people, and the corrections board prohibits placing people “with serious mental or serious physical disabilities or conditions” or those who are pregnant in solitary confinement.

The mayor announced that the practice would immediately be banned for people with asthma, seizure, diabetes, transplant status, treatment with blood thinners, heart, kidney, liver, or lung disease, or disabilities such as blindness, deafness, or mobility issues that require the use of a wheelchair or walker.

But the city has to go further and end solitary confinement altogether, he said. “We have proven that we can keep jails safe with much less use of solitary confinement/punitive segregation,” he explained. He is appointing four people to a working group to plan how to end the practice: Commissioner of Correction Cynthia Brann; Board of Correction Vice Chair Stanley Richards; DeAnna Hoskins, president and CEO of Just Leadership USA; and a representative of the corrections officers’ union. De Blasio expects a report from the group in the fall, he said.

Polanco was well-known in the New York City ballroom scene as a member of the House of Xtravaganza, and she also went by the name Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza as well as Layleen Cubilette-Polanco. Her death has led to protests and to a lawsuit against the city by her family.

Nationwide, trans women are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement, and Black trans women are disproportionately incarcerated. Polanco was Afro-Latinx.

The New York City Anti-Violence Project, which has advocated for an end to solitary confinement statewide, found de Blasio’s action insufficient and called for an immediate end to the practice and firing of the officers disciplined in Polanco’s death.

“It is a simple mandate to no longer have people in solitary. All you have to do is no longer put people in solitary confinement,” Eliel Cruz, the group’s director of communications, told NBC News. He also pointed out that there are no trans people in the working group.

“I hope that people do not take these crumbs as justice for Layleen,” he added.

But Jennifer Jones Austin, who chairs the Board of Correction, told NBC that time and discussion are needed when setting a new policy. “If you did it tomorrow, but you did not think through those particular issues, people might be at risk,” she said. “But more importantly, you’re not going to [get] people to really buy in and make the change that is critically necessary.”

Planned jail reforms by the city also include closure of the Rikers complex. Last fall the City Council approved plans to close Rikers by 2026 and replace it with smaller, up-to-date facilities near the city’s main courthouses in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.

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