Update (June 29, 2020): Seventeen corrections officers in New York City are being held responsible for the death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died while in solitary confinement at the Rose M. Singer Center jail on Rikers Island last year. According to NBC News, three officers and one captain will be suspended without pay immediately, but the consequences for the remaining 13 officers haven’t been revealed.
“The death of Layleen Polanco was an incredibly painful moment for our city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability.”
Polanco was detained last year after allegedly charging at a cab driver and being in possession of a controlled substance, as Blavity previously reported. After being held in a dormitory in a transgender housing unit, Polanco was in a physical altercation, resulting in her removal from the unit. She showed signs of mental distress after being sentenced to 20 days in solitary confinement.
Polanco was then referred to mental health services, where officers said she was “expressing a desire to commit suicide and/or attempting suicide” and where she allegedly attacked an officer. After spending eight days in a psychiatric prison ward at Elmhurst Hospital, Polanco was taken back to Rikers Island and placed in solitary confinement despite the advice of a psychiatrist, who noted her history of seizures.
The medical examiner’s report later determined that Polanco died after suffering an epileptic seizure.
Aracelis Polanco, the mother of the 27-year-old, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Correctional Health Services in August. The complaint said the DOC failed to provide Polanco with "safe housing, adequate medical care, and proper accommodation for her disabilities." According to Time, surveillance video showed jail guards trying to revive Polanco for about an hour and a half before they finally called for medical help.
Earlier this month, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark concluded a six-month investigation into Polanco's death and declined to bring charges against the officers, CBS News reported.
“The purview of this Office is not to determine whether it was a wrong decision to place Ms. Polanco into Punitive Segregation while she was suffering from a documented seizure disorder;” Clark said in a statement. “The purview of this office is to determine whether that decision rose to the level of criminal behavior.”
Clark said the Public Integrity Bureau is “unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any individual committed any crime associated with Ms. Polanco’s demise.”
Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, said the disciplinary action is an "egregious abuse of power that is unprecedented."
"We will vigorously fight these suspensions and refuse to allow this city to demonize Correction Officers," Husamudeen said in a statement.
According to the city's Department of Investigation, officers failed to check on Polanco for several extended time intervals, with 57 minutes being the longest she went unattended to while she was in her cell. Guards are required to check on inmates in solitary confinement every 15 minutes, the department's report stated.
"Even one death in our custody is one too many and this swift and fair determination on internal discipline makes clear that the safety and well-being of people in our custody remains our top priority," Cynthia Brann, the city's corrections commissioner, said in a statement.
Original (June 26, 2020): While a report found that the Rikers Island staff was not criminally responsible in the death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, another investigation has concluded some of the jail's employees failed to take a number of measures which could have ensured her safety.
Polanco, a trans woman, died from an epileptic seizure on June 7, 2019, while incarcerated at the Rose M. Singer Center jail at Rikers Island, reports Time. Recently released video footage from the hours leading up to her death show that the staff at the women's facility of the notoriously troubled jail did not give Polanco lifesaving care. Now, her family is suing for wrongful death.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark announced earlier this month that no criminal charges will be brought against the staff after an investigation into her death was completed. But a new report from the New York City Board of Corrections shows that staff did not take Polanco’s mental health into consideration when they placed her in solitary confinement.
Polanco was initially arrested for allegedly assaulting a cab driver and for possession of a controlled substance, and she was being held on $500 bail. The Department of Corrections (DOC) did not want to put a transgender woman in general population housing where cisgender women lived. Officials also discussed placing Polanco in a men’s ward.
Polanco was held in a dormitory in the transgender housing unit but was charged with violating the DOC’s rules after engaging in a physical altercation. After a May 14 disciplinary hearing, she was sentenced to 20 days in solitary confinement, but she began showing signs of mental distress the following day.
On May 15, she was referred to mental health services, with a Rikers officer noting the 27-year-old was “expressing a desire to commit suicide and/or attempting suicide,” “shouting, crying and/or screaming,” “having hallucinations/delusions” and “being alarmed (frightened) or in a state of panic.”
During this distressed state, Polanco allegedly charged at an officer.
She then spent nine days at Elmhurst Hospital, eight of which were spent in a psychiatric prison ward.
Polanco was ineligible for "a cell housing placement" because of her history of seizure disorder, but a correctional health services doctor cleared her for solitary confinement because he claimed her condition had been stable. At least one psychiatrist, though, did not authorize her placement in restrictive housing, reports NBC News.
Polanco was left alone for long periods of time including for 57 minutes, 47 minutes and 41 minutes on the day she died, despite DOC policy stating that people in solitary confinement need to be checked on every 15 minutes. Jail staff said they believed she was sleeping before they found her unresponsive. The jail’s medical provider also failed to notify guards of her seizure disorder.
Although the DOC initially stated that Polanco was found unresponsive in her cell at 2:40 p.m., video footage shows multiple staff members knocking on the door to her cell over the span of 90 minutes before opening it. Officers can also be seen laughing before they approached her, reports NBC.
“The video is the last piece of the puzzle,” David Shanies, an attorney for Polanco’s family said. “It's the last bit of indifference to her life that we saw and recklessness to a person who obviously needed help.”
Diane Struzzi, director of communications for the Department of Investigation, said that inmates have a right to sleep and the officers’ laughter was not toward Polanco.
“The evidence from the investigation by DOI and the Bronx District Attorney's Office found that those checking on Ms. Polanco consistently indicated that they thought she was sleeping,” Struzzi said.
Shanies disagrees, saying that the officers' actions lead him to believe they knew something was wrong with Polanco.
“You could see on the video that multiple officers are staring into Layleen’s cell knocking, waiting, calling other people over to look,” Shanies said. “At certain points, people spend five to 10 minutes just staring through the window, into the cell. It's not something that you do for somebody who you think is asleep.”
Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said her department will seek internal disciplinary action.
“The safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority, and we are committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane,” Brann said. “Even one death in our custody is one too many.”
In the report, the Board of Corrections outlines 25 recommendations for practices that were not used in Polanco’s situation and that would prevent another death in this fashion, including a process for rehousing due to interpersonal conflicts and the placement of transgender women in general population with cisgender women, according to NBC.
Melania Brown, Polanco’s sister said she wants solitary confinement banned in New York City and for the city to take serious measures to address how trans women are treated in the criminal justice system.
“I wasn't surprised that the report was going to find the police not guilty,” Brown said. “What bothered me the most was deadnaming. The public and myself and my family deserve a public apology. It clearly shows their bias.”