layleen polanco

Rikers Island Solitary Unit Back in Use After Polanco Death

The Rose Singer Center on Rikers Island, where female inmates are housed.
The Rose Singer Center on Rikers Island, where female inmates are housed. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

The de Blasio administration quietly reopened Rikers Island’s solitary confinement unit for women after emptying it following the death of a transgender woman there last month, THE CITY has learned.

Detainees in the woman’s punitive segregation ward were transferred from the solitary unit back into the general population at the Rose M. Singer Center amid a probe into Layleen Polanco’s June 7 death.

On Friday, city Department of Correction officials moved seven women into the unit, city officials said. There were eight women in the unit by Monday, DOC said, all as punishment for infractions.

“It shouldn’t be open,” Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, told THE CITY. “We still have no answers as to what happened to my sister in that box.”

The reopening follows a major push from city lawmakers and inmate advocates to drastically limit the use of solitary as a punishment in the wake of Polanco’s death. It also occurred on the eve of Pride weekend, where some participants carried signs saying “Justice for Layleen” and others wore T-shirts with her name as they marched with her family members.

Tabytha Gonzalez, from the House of Revlon, spoke about the death of Leyleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died while being held in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, June 10, 2019.
Tabytha Gonzalez, from the House of Revlon, spoke about the death of Leyleen 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

Leading LGBT groups, including GMHC and the LGBT Community Center, as well as the Legal Aid Society, called last Wednesday for the women’s solitary unit to remain shuttered.

A day later, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Criminal Justice Committee Chair Keith Powers sent a letter to the Board of Correction urging the oversight body to “conduct a review…with an aim toward ending” solitary confinement.

The city lawmakers also asked the board to set limits that would parallel those that would have been imposed by a state bill called Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement, which failed to pass before last month’s end of the legislative session.

They wrote that Polanco’s death, nine days into a 20-day solitary sentence, “highlights the urgent need to reform” the system.

Under the state proposal, solitary confinement, also known as punitive segregation, would have been limited to 15-day stretches, down from 30 days.

On Monday, Johnson said he was “disappointed” to learn that the women’s solitary confine unit had was back in use — “especially during the closing weekend of Pride when the LBGT community was celebrating all our hard-fought rights.”

“We clearly have more work to do to protect the transgender community and improve everyone’s human rights…and we will continue to fight towards the end of this inhumane practice,” he added.

Scaled-Back Solitary

City jail officials said last month that female inmates in the punitive segregation unit were moved back to the general population amid the investigation into Polanco’s death. Jail supervisors decided to grant them conditional release from solitary “given the potential negative impact” of returning after the June 7 fatality.

Polanco was pronounced dead inside her cell at 3:45 p.m. on that Friday afternoon, jail records show. The cause of her death has not yet been determined by the city Medical Examiner.

Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012.
Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012. Photo: Facebook

The unions representing jail officers are against any solitary confinement limitations, arguing the punishment is a necessary tool to separate inmates who attack other detainees or violate other internal rules.

“While the death is a tragedy, the solitary confinement area is a jail security tool that has been used consistently for decades,” said Joe Russo, who represents top jail supervisors.

“It is absolutely necessary to run a secure jail,” he added. “Closing it, or limiting its use, is contrary to law and order and control in jail.”

Since June 15, there have been no stabbings or slashings in the women-only Singer facility, according to Russo. Still, there were 11 reported officer uses of force against inmates, four assaults on staff, and two contraband finds — including one “dangerous article,” the union president said.

Critics of solitary confinement note some studies show its use can cause serious medical issues and exacerbate preexisting mental illness. Inmates in solitary also are more likely to harm themselves and commit suicide, according to a 2014 study conducted in city jails.

The de Blasio administration already has taken steps to reduce the use of solitary. It eliminated punitive segregation for inmates ages 21 years and younger in 2016. The city also limited solitary to 30 consecutive days, or 60 days total over a six month period, barring some exceptions for repeated violent behavior.

As of Monday, there were 124 men in segregated units, according to the city’s Board of Correction, in addition to the eight women at Singer. By contrast, there were more than 600 inmates in solitary during certain periods in 2014, department records show. That included over 180 young adults, from 18 to 21.

De Blasio isn’t on board with further restricting its use.

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