rikers island

Medical Condition Should Have Kept Polanco From Solitary, Experts Say

Layleen Polanco in an undated photo.
Layleen Polanco in an undated photo. Photo: Facebook

Layleen Polanco’s medical condition should have kept her out of an isolation cell, according to two former jail medical staffers.

Polanco, 27, died in her solitary cell from a seizure related to epilepsy on June 7, according to the city medical examiner’s office. She was cleared by a doctor who reviewed her medical chart before she was placed in the Rose M. Singer’s solitary unit, according to records.

Her active seizure disorder should have been especially concerning because seizures are a relatively common cause of death in jail, one former jail medical staffer who asked to remain anonymous told THE CITY. Polanco’s disorder is clearly listed in her jail records.

Polanco’s jail records show she was approved for punitive segregation (PSEG) despite seizure disorder. Photo: Obtained by THE CITY

The Correction Department does not have a specific list of ailments that exempt detainees from being tossed into solitary. But those with serious conditions, like a seizure disorder, are typically exempt, the medical personnel said.

“That’s a major no-no,” a former Rikers medical clinician said. Some inmates even fake seizure disorders in order to avoid solitary, the clinician noted.

Polanco, a transgender woman, was on her ninth day of a 20-day sentence in so-called punitive segregation when she was found dead inside her cell at 3:45 p.m. She’d been detained since mid-April on $500 bail for misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges.

Warren Tweets on the Case

Now, her death has garnered national attention — leading some activists and elected officials to call variously for sharp limits to solitary confinement or the end of the practice.

Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential primary candidate Elizabeth Warren weighed in Thursday, tweeting: “Let’s be clear: Layleen Cubilette-Polanco should still be alive. Solitary confinement is cruel and inhumane. We must end this practice, enforce strict standards for medical care, and provide extra layers of protection for LGBTQ+ people.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is also running for president, has been reluctant to go that far, saying he will not end solitary confinement in city jails.

“I’m not there yet because we also have to recognize, we’re striking a balance all the time in our correction system…we also have to create an atmosphere that is safe and orderly,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on June 21. “We have to protect our officers as well.”

His administration ended solitary for people 21 and younger, and for those with mental illness. But most men and women age 22 and older can still be tossed into isolation.

That’s not enough for Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown.

“At the end of the day, if it’s not okay for a person that’s under 21 to go to solitary confinement, what is the difference for a person over 21?” she told THE CITY on Thursday. “They’re animals?”

Williams Seeks Answers

Meanwhile, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams asked the de Blasio administration to answer multiple outstanding questions related to Polanco’s death.

“Ms. Polanco’s death is a tragedy that should never have happened,” Williams said in a statement. “I am concerned that additional people incarcerated at Rikers Island may not be receiving the medical attention they need and may be placed in solitary confinement in violation of agency regulations.”

The city’s Correctional Health Services (CHS), which oversees inmate medical care, called the death “unpredictable.”

Polanco suffered from a “tragic and unpredictable complication of epilepsy,” said Jennine Ventura, a CHS spokesperson. “Our deep condolences go out to the family, loved ones, and friends of Layleen Polanco.”

House of Xtravaganza mother Gisele Alicea (left) and house daughter Alana Ramos watch a video of Polanco walking in a ball before she died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, June 13, 2019.
House of Xtravaganza mother Gisele Alicea (left) and house daughter Alana Ramos watch a video of Polanco walking in a ball before she died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, June 13, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

At a May 17 hearing, Polanco’s lawyer asked that she be flagged for medical attention. While in jail she took an anti-seizure drug called Keppra twice a day.

Polanco’s case is similar in some ways to the death of Rolando Perez inside a solitary cell in January 2015.

Perez, who was 35 when he died on Rikers Island, didn’t get his anti-seizure medications, according to an internal investigation.

He was tossed into solitary after a fight with another inmate and was found later found unconscious. Inmates in his area said he begged jail staff for his medication, according to a video obtained by his lawyer, Jeffrey Guzman.

In May, the city settled a lawsuit brought by Perez’s family for $3.5 million.

‘I Hope She Wins’

As for Polanco, the de Blasio administration highlighted how his administration has drastically reduced the number of inmates in solitary confinement over the past several years.

“Layleen Polanco never should have been in jail to begin with,” Avery Cohen, a City Hall spokesperson, said in an email when asked for comment on Warren’s call to end the practice.

Cohen noted the administration’s push to close Rikers and build four smaller jails in the boroughs.

But criminal justice reform advocates point out that de Blasio has not ordered police to cease low-level arrests such as the seventh-degree drug possession Polanco was hit with for allegedly having a drug pipe on her. De Blasio also has opposed the decriminalization of sex work, for which Polanco’s family is pushing.

While she appreciates that the mayor spoke about Polanco, Brown said he needs to act.

“Him speaking on my sister is not going to make us feel better, it’s not going to bring us comfort,” she said. “Him making a positive change to help other humans not go through this or other humans not die is what’s going to bring us comfort, period.

“So I’m behind Elizabeth [Warren],” she added, “and I hope she wins.”

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.