The family of a transgender woman who died while incarcerated at one of New York City’s Rikers Island facilities filed suit against the city and several officials today, saying “deliberate indifference” of corrections workers caused her death.
Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, 27, died June 7 in the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers, where she was being held on a misdemeanor charge. The cause was an epileptic seizure, an autopsy revealed. She had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as well as epilepsy.
“Layleen is dead because the City of New York and its [Department of Correction] and Health + Hospitals / Correctional Health Services ('CHS') personnel failed to provide her safe housing, adequate medical care, and proper accommodation for her disabilities,” says the suit, filed by attorneys David B. Shanies and Joel A. Wertheimer on behalf of Aracelis Polanco, Cubilette-Polanco’s mother, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Cubilette-Polanco, who was unable to post the $500 bail that would have allowed her to be free while awaiting trial, was sentenced to 20 days of punitive segregation — solitary confinement — May 30. DOC official Khalilah Flemister and physician Colleen Vessell authorized the segregation even though they “knew that Layleen lived with epilepsy and schizophrenia, and was at heightened risk of death or serious physical harm if placed in segregation,” according to the suit. DOC policies, it says, “purport to forbid punitive segregation from being used on an inmate with a serious medical or psychiatric condition,” but Cubilette-Polanco was placed there nonetheless.
Cubilette-Polanco also suffered a head injury around the time she was placed in the segregation unit, but she received no treatment for it, nor any screening for how it might affect her epilepsy, the suit states. Corrections officers found her unresponsive about 1 p.m. on June 7 but did not try to determine if she needed medical attention, it says. About two hours later, she was still unresponsive, and finally jail officials realized she was dead.
“She had been dead so long that first responders found her body cold to the touch,” the suit says.
“Epileptics need consistent, 24-hour monitoring because of the risk of death from suffocation and other hazards seizures cause,” the document notes, but “inmates placed in restricted housing and solitary confinement do not receive such constant monitoring, and instead are ignored and left in their cells for hours at a time.” This is what happened to Cubilette-Polanco, it says, adding that there have been many other deaths of inmates held in these conditions.
The city and the officials named in the suit — Flemister, Vessell, Chanze Williams, and other corrections staffers — violated Cubilette-Polanco’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for due process and equal protection under the law, and failed to accommodate her conditions as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal law, the suit alleges. It seeks punitive and compensatory damages, court costs, and whatever other relief the court sees fit to provide.
Cubilette-Polanco’s death has led to protests by numerous activist groups. New York City Anti-Violence Project spokesman Eliel Cruz released this statement today: “The City of New York has not provided answers into the untimely death of Layleen Polanco despite repeated demands for accountability from her family and community. The delay in answers has only caused the family and community further harm. We now know that Layleen died due to a seizure, at least the second seizure she had while detained, caused by her epilepsy, a medical condition Rikers officials knew she had. Still she was placed in solitary, where she died alone. Layleen’s family deserves answers and justice into her tragic and preventable death. AVP stands with them as they continue to push for answers into the death of their loved one.”
The Advocate has sought comment from the New York City Department of Law but has yet to receive a response. However, the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a statement: “Our thoughts remain with Layleen Polanco’s, family, friends, and community. Her death is particularly painful given the long and tragic history of injustice toward the transgender community, which we will not stand for. Any loss of life in our custody is unacceptable, and we must continue our work towards enacting long- term criminal justice reform.”