Layleen Polanco died in her solitary cell from a seizure related to epilepsy, the city medical examiner’s office announced Tuesday.
Polanco, 27, was taking a drug called Keppra twice a day for the condition — but was still cleared by city medical staff to be placed in the jail’s solitary unit, according to family lawyer David Shanies, who cited her jail medical records.
Inmates with serious medical conditions are not supposed to be placed into punitive segregation areas, under city regulations.
“The autopsy confirms what the family suspected from the beginning, which is that Layleen died as a result of indifference and neglect,” Shanies said. “Clearly, she should never have been alone unmonitored in segregation and the fact that a doctor signed off on this is shocking.”
The medical examiner’s office noted that a “biological mutation” had caused the epilepsy.
“Genetic testing on this decedent showed a biological mutation in the CANNA1H gene which is the likely cause of her epilepsy; variants in this gene are associated with seizures,” Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson said in a statement.
Polanco, a transgender woman, was on her ninth day of a 20-day sentence in punitive segregation when she was pronounced dead in a Rikers solitary cell on June 7 at 3:45 p.m. She had been held since mid-April on $500 bail tied to a misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges.
Medical Issue Cited
Polanco’s criminal defense lawyer flagged a medical condition during a court date on May 17, according to a transcript.
At a hearing in Manhattan Criminal Court, the lawyer from The Legal Aid Society asked for “her card to be marked ‘medical attention,’” the transcript shows.
Sources with the Department of Correction also previously told THE CITY that officials knew Polanco suffered from seizures.
Polanco, a figure in the city’s ballroom scene, suffered from two seizures in jail, according to Shanies. The first was on April 30.
She also was hospitalized for eight days, from May 16 to May 24, due to an undisclosed ailment during her stint in custody, as THE CITY previously revealed.
Anyone who is put into Rikers solitary units must first be cleared by medical staff, according to Mark Cranston, the former acting Correction Commissioner who is now the warden of the Middlesex County, N.J., jail.
He noted, though, that the policy doesn’t list seizures — or any other specific condition — as a reason to exempt a detainee from solitary.
The city’s Correctional Health Services has previously said that Polanco was cleared by medical staff before she was placed in punitive segregation.
Her death has spurred calls for the de Blasio administration to strictly limit or eliminate the use of solitary confinement. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has led a chorus of elected officials urging the sweeping change.
Still Looking for Answers
“We hope that the OCME’s determination helps provide answers that Layleen’s family, friends, and the city deserves,” said Correction Department spokesperson Peter Thorne.
“The broader investigation, which is being led by the Bronx DA and the Department of Investigation, is ongoing, and we are participating fully.”
Polanco’s older sister, Melania Brown, said solitary ended up being a death sentence.
“Imagine her being in a box like an animal, she’d probably been dead for hours,” she said. “If she was out with a larger population, out with people around her, I believe she would’ve been alive.”
Brown said she wants any workers who played a role in the death to be held accountable and that she wants solitary ended in city jails.
“Now I can’t be sad, that’s it, there’s no more crying,” she added. “It’s time to go to war. And this war may not bring her back but it will save a lot of other inmates, other human beings. And other families from going through what we’re going through.”
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