Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco should not have been in solitary confinement at Rikers Island.
But the 27-year-old transgender woman was pushed into this part of the infamous New York City jail last year, despite a doctor’s objections and a documented seizure disorder. She would end up dying after nine days in solitary, suffering a seizure alone in her cell. The city’s jail oversight board, the Board of Corrections (BOC), unpacked what went wrong in a new report shared this week.
As Gothamist reports, “confused” jail staff checked on Polanco infrequently while she was confined in the solitary unit. Policy requires staffers to check inmates every 15 minutes, but corrections officers left Polanco unchecked for periods of “57, 47, and 41 minutes between when she was confirmed alive and pronounced dead,” writes the local outlet.
But the BOC points out that the issues contributing to Polanco’s June 2019 death extend well beyond the failure of a handful of staffers to obey guidelines. The BOC found that the city’s jail system’s process for identifying who should—and should not—be in solitary was “insufficient, inconsistent, and potentially susceptible to undue pressure” from the Department of Corrections.
The review found that the DOC was intent on keeping Polanco away from general population housing areas on Rikers where cisgender women are held. She was previously housed with other trans inmates, but after an altercation involving someone else at the jail, she was punished with a stay in a solitary unit. Polanco broke down, expressing suicidal thoughts and appeared to have delusions and hallucinations, according to one staffer. She was hospitalized for nine days at a Queens hospital, where she received psychiatric treatment.
Upon her return to the jail, Rikers officials discussed putting Polanco in a men’s ward, the BOC report stated.
Because the DOC refused to house Polanco with cisgender women, she was put in solitary confinement at the beginning of June, despite a psychiatrist declining to clear Polanco for the Restrictive Housing Unit on May 24, on account of her history of seizures (that psychiatrist’s call was reversed by a Correctional Health Services doctor less than a week later).
“DOC’s determination not to house a transgender woman in general population housing areas for cisgender women in May 2019 resulted in increased pressure to place Ms. Polanco in the RHU (Restricted Housing Unit)—a Unit unsuitable to manage both her medical and mental health needs,” reads the report.
She later died in solitary from an epileptic seizure.
As Black Lives Matter demonstrations continue across the country, attention has been re-cast on victims of state violence from previous years. Among them is Polanco, whose name was lifted up by friends, family, and supporters who attended the massive rally in Brooklyn for Trans Black lives earlier this month. According to Time, Polanco’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of New York and Rikers employees, saying jail staff failed to adequately care for their loved one, who was being held at Rikers over a $500 bail. Polanco’s family pointed to surveillance footage showing jail guards seeing that she was unresponsive, but not opening her cell door until about an hour and a half later.
Earlier this month, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark announced that her office would not seek criminal charges in Polanco’s death.
Correctional Health Services [CHS] released a statement saying it strongly disagreed with the BOC’s conclusions.
“As part of NYC Health + Hospitals, the nation’s largest and leading municipal health care system, Correctional Health Services (CHS) is guided by best clinical practices in patient care,” CHS spokesperson Jeanette Merrill said in a statement. “We disagree with the conclusions the Board reached in the report, as well as their misguided recommendations regarding the clinical care that was provided.”
Corrected: Thursday, June 29 at 3:29 PM, ET: A previous version of this post stated that jail guards attempted to resuscitate Layleen Xtravaganza Polanco for about an hour and a half before calling for medical care. Footage from the jail shows they made no such attempts.