solitary confinement

Layleen Polanco’s Mother Files Lawsuit Over Rikers Death

Layleen Polanco's family and friends — clockwise: brother Salomon Polanco; best friend Ramon Monclus; sister Melania Brown; mother Aracelis Polanco; and best friend Amanda Collazo — hold her ashes in their Yonkers home. The painting in the background is of her.
Layleen Polanco’s family and friends — clockwise: brother Salomon Polanco; best friend Ramon Monclus; sister Melania Brown; mother Aracelis Polanco; and best friend Amanda Collazo — hold her ashes in their Yonkers home. The painting in the background is of her. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died on Rikers Island, would still be alive had she not been put in solitary confinement, a federal lawsuit filed Monday charges.

Polanco, 27, lived with epilepsy and schizophrenia — and suffered from injuries to her head and face that went untreated, according to the complaint, filed on behalf of her mother, Aracelis Polanco, in Brooklyn Federal court.

Despite those health concerns, Layleen Polanco was given 20 days in solitary confinement after a fight with another inmate inside the Rose M. Singer Center.

On the ninth day in the segregated housing unit, Polanco died. Her body was “cold to the touch” when first responders arrived on June 7, the lawsuit alleges.

Jail officers checked on Polanco at around 1 p.m. that day, according to the lawsuit. The officers knocked on her cell door but she did not respond.

“The officers took no action to get Layleen medical attention,” the lawsuit says.

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

Another inmate heard one of the officers say Polanco was “asleep,” the complaint alleges.

Two hours later, first responders were called to the scene and found her body, according to the court papers.

According to the city medical examiner’s office, she died from a seizure related to epilepsy.

Apparent Violation of Regulations

Correction Department regulations forbid detainees with serious medical conditions from being in solitary confinement units. Two former Rikers medical staffers told THE CITY that Polanco’s active seizure disorder alone should have kept her out of solitary.

Aracelis Polanco is suing the city, a doctor who cleared the solitary confinement placement, and four other jail staffers.

The lawsuit contends the defendants ignored Layleen Polanco’s medical needs by putting her in solitary, where she rarely got more than two hours out of her cell.

“Had she been reasonably accommodated, she would have been detained in a readily observable cell, and would be alive,” the lawsuit says.

Polanco, was a member of the city’s ballroom community, was taking an anti-seizure drug called Keppra, according to family lawyer David Shanies, who cited her jail medical records.

Layleen Polanco’s family memorial to her in their Yonkers home.
Layleen Polanco’s family memorial to her in their Yonkers home. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The lawsuit charges Polanco and other transgender inmates are regularly placed in solitary “often for minor alleged infractions and in some cases for no legitimate reason at all.”

It seeks compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial. Overall, tort settlements made by the city’s Correction Department have gone from $27.1 million in Fiscal Year 2015 to $31.5 million in FY 2018, records show.

She had been in jail since mid-April on $500 bail tied to misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges.

Movement for Solitary Reform

Her death has generated calls to end or strictly limit the use of solitary confinement in city jails. The chorus includes Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential primary candidate Elizabeth Warren and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Mayor Bill de Blasio remains unconvinced, telling WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in June, “I’m not there yet.”

Avery Cohen, a mayoral spokesperson, said Polanco’s death was “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,” Cohen added.

Melania Brown, Polanco’s sister, told THE CITY in an interview earlier this month that incarceration at Rikers Island killed her sister.

“They should change the name to ‘Slaughterhouse,’” she said.

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