rikers island

Questions Over Why Layleen Polanco Was Jailed Amid $500 Bail

Hundreds of people packed into Foley Square to hold a vigil for Layleen Polanco on Monday.
Hundreds of people packed into Foley Square to hold a vigil for Layleen Polanco on Monday. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Layleen Polanco died on Rikers Island in lieu of $500 bail.

It’s still unclear what caused 27-year-old transgender woman’s death Friday at Rikers, where she was being held in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers questioned why she was allowed to languish in a cell, for misdemeanor charges, locked up on bail apparently beyond her means.

“No human being should be tortured by or in the United States,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx/Queens) wrote on Twitter. “That means NO ONE should be kept in solitary confinement. Layleen Polanco was, and now she’s gone — all for $500 bail.”

In recent years, several bail funds have been established to help low-income detainees.

The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, the Bronx Freedom Fund and the City Council’s Liberty Fund were created as lifelines for low-income detainees stuck in city jails while their cases wend their way through court.

The three operations have bailed out thousands of people over the past several years while urging state lawmakers to change the system. In September 2018, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization announced a month-long “Mass Bailout” project aimed at freeing hundreds of women held in city jails.

Eligibility Requirements for Funds

Criminal justice reformers contend these efforts are needed because the bail system is deeply flawed and unfairly punishes poor people who can’t scrape together enough money to secure their release.

Some of the funds have eligibility requirements: The Liberty Fund, which began in 2016, uses a risk assessment tool to decide whom to bail out during night arraignments across the five boroughs.

Executive Director Dave Long said that the fund’s review process takes into account a person’s warrant history, open cases, prior convictions, age and employment status.

Layleen Polanco's sister Melania Brown, left, hugs Tabytha Gonzalez at a rally in Foley Square on Monday, June 10.
Layleen Polanco’s sister Melania Brown, left, hugs Tabytha Gonzalez at a rally in Foley Square on Monday, June 10. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“We only say no to cases when they fail our assessment,” Long told THE CITY.

The Bronx Freedom Fund has posted bail for at least 600 people in 2017, according to the group’s website.

The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund has helped free more than 4,000 people since its launch in April 2015, according to its website.

New Calls for Reform

Polanco was placed as punishment in a restrictive housing unit in which detainees spend a minimum of 17 hours a day alone. They can be outside their solitary cells for up to seven hours for activities such as programming and therapy.

Albany lawmakers made significant changes to the bail system earlier this year, along with other criminal justice reforms. But some are calling for more — even as a bill that would end solitary confinement in state prisons languishes near the end of the legislative session.

The death of Polanco, a Dominican immigrant and figure in the city’s ballroom scene, underscored for some the need for a deeper overhaul.

“The restrictive housing unit where Laylee Polanco died stays in lockdown for 17 hours out of the day,” state Senator Luis Sepulveda (D-Bronx) wrote on Twitter. “This is torture and it’s time to end this inhumane practice before more lives are lost to solitary confinement.”

“The death of Layleen Polanco is a tragic reminder of the need for broad criminal justice reform — and of the dangers faced by incarcerated trans people,” said  Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat whose district includes Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) focused on Polanco’s bail in a tweet: “A woman’s freedom shouldn’t depend on the amount of money she has in her pocket.”

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