layleen polanco

Rikers Empties Women’s Solitary Unit After Polanco Death

Hundreds of people packed into Foley Square to mourn the death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died while being held in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, June 10, 2019.
Hundreds of people packed into Foley Square to mourn the death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died while being held in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, June 10, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The solitary confinement unit in the women’s jail on Rikers Island has been shut since Layleen Polanco died there earlier this month, THE CITY has learned.

Detainees in the woman’s punitive segregation ward were moved out amid the investigation into the June 7 death and have remained away since, according to the Correction Department.

Polanco was on her ninth day of a 20-day sentence in punitive segregation when she was pronounced dead in her cell at 3:45 p.m. The cause of her death has not been determined by the city Medical Examiner.

The 27-year-old transgender woman had been held since mid-April on $500 bail linked to misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges.

Polanco’s death in jail left loved ones grasping for answers — and galvanized politicians who decried the web of low-level arrests, bail and solitary confinement that ensnared her. Her death comes as activists push for statewide limits to solitary confinement, which also would apply to city jails.

“I think solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment and we need to get away from it,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who called Polanco’s death “a wake-up call.”

On May 16, Polanco was sent from Rikers to Elmhurst Hospital for undisclosed reasons and stayed there for eight days, returning to the jail May 24. On May 30, she was sentenced to 20 days of punitive segregation as punishment for her role in a fight that day.

NYC Health + Hospitals has not released the reason for Polanco’s hospitalization, citing patient privacy. People with serious mental or physical disabilities or conditions are not allowed in solitary confinement, under city rules. The agency said Polanco was checked for health reasons that would exclude her from solitary before being placed there.

The de Blasio administration has moved to reduce the number of inmates in solitary, and ended punitive segregation for young adults 21 and younger in city jails in 2016. Medical experts say the practice causes serious health harms, especially for younger detainees.

But the city has not ended solitary for women and men 22 and older. As of Monday, 119 men were being held in such units. Some 30 of them were in a so-called “Restrictive Housing Unit,” like the one where Polanco died, according to the city’s Board of Correction, which oversees the jails.

Layleen Polanco Died Alone

Before she was put in solitary, Polanco had been held in a special unit for transgender women at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail on Rikers, city authorities said. But at the time of her death, Polanco was elsewhere, in a Restrictive Housing Unit.

Layleen Polanco’s family handed out a portrait during the 27-year-old transgender woman’s funeral on Saturday, June 15. Photo: Handout

The RHU, as it is known, is a form of so-called punitive segregation designated for people who have some history of mental health issues, but not enough to bar them from solitary.

Unlike the general population of inmates, who cannot be confined to cells for longer than 10 hours a day, people in the RHU can be locked in solitary cells for up to 23 hours straight.

They are, like everyone in solitary at Rikers, required to get an hour of “recreation” out of their cells, which is time spent in an outdoor cage. Meals are eaten alone in cells.

In addition, the women’s RHU offers three hours of group therapy per weekday, according to the Board of Correction. Participants are shackled to their desks throughout. This is the only programming offered on the unit, the BOC confirmed, and there is none on the weekends.

The Albany bill would require six hours of out-of-cell programming daily, in addition to the hour of recreation. The measure also would have limited Polanco’s sentence to 15 days.

City officials insist that the term “solitary confinement” should only apply to 23-hour lockup, not the regular 20-hour weekday lockup on Polanco’s unit.

Last week, they said that detainees could be out of their cells for seven hours — a figure that, in addition to the hour of mandated recreation time, turned out to include an hour each for showering, a prospective visit from outsiders and potential time in a medical clinic, whether or not they occur. DOC is required to provide all three to anyone in solitary at Rikers, according to the Board of Correction.

In August, the jail oversight board had suggested the city place a full-time social worker in the transgender unit to mediate disputes to prevent people from being kicked out of the specialized area. That recommendation was ignored.

“A counselor meets with the women every week,” said Peter Thorne, Correction Department spokesperson. “Our officers are also specially trained to address the needs of this unique population and in the case of verbal disagreements or fighting quickly step in to mediate and de-escalate the situation.”

‘Harmful to Health’

Jail experts say the unit is clearly solitary confinement, and dismissed the idea that such requirements for all detainees should be subtracted from total lock-in time.

“A shower is not counted as time out of cell in segregation. It’s a shower,” Board of Correction member Dr. Bobby Cohen said. “Visiting and showers are not a privilege to be granted by DOC.  They are BOC minimum standards.”

“RHU is a solitary confinement setting,” he added. “The Board has expressed its concern that extra time out of cell for RHU residents is not regularly available.”

Sheila Rothenberg of Manhattan said her daughter had been held in the same unit as Polanco at the women’s jail on Rikers — or, as her daughter called it, “the bing,” slang for solitary.

“They don’t want to call that solitary confinement?” Rothenberg said. “In alone, in a cell. She eats in there, she reads in there. I mean, it’s solitary.”

Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer in city jails, said the kind of isolation practiced in the RHU is “harmful to health.”

“The harms are not predictable,” he said. “And to the extent that the isolation is linked to rules that lack transparency or fairness, then the harms are actually increased because it strips people not just of their freedom to move around and to interact with others, but it also is very dehumanizing because it exposes them to rules that they don’t really have the power to understand or to be treated fairly by.”

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