A year after trans Afro-Latina Layleen Xtravaganza Polanco died while imprisoned in solitary confinement at Rikers Island, New York City Bill de Blasio has vowed to end the practice “once and for all.”
The mayor made the announcement during his Monday briefing, invoking Polanco’s name as well as that of Kalief Browder, the young Black man who hung himself in 2015 after spending two years in solitary confinement.
“Layleen Polanco should not have been in Rikers to begin with. Layleen Polanco should not have been in solitary confinement, and Lord knows she deserves justice,” de Blasio said. “Her family deserves justice, the transgender community deserves justice. We have to right the wrong.”
“Effective immediately, people with underlying medical conditions will not be subject to punitive segregation—solitary confinement,” de Blasio continued.
According to the mayor’s briefing, corrections staffers are prohibited from placing those deemed “medically vulnerable” in solitary confinement. De Blaso said the practice was already banned for those who are pregnant and have severe mental health issues, as well as minors and those being held in juvenile detention facilities.
Those considered medically vulnerable include people who are prone to seizures or are in need of a wheelchair. Inmates with chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, kidney, liver and lung disease are also among those who may no longer be forced into solitary confinement.
The beleaguered mayor, who has been criticized by Black Lives Matter protesters for not doing more to rein in police brutality or defund state violence, also appointed a working group to see how the practice of solitary confinement can be abolished “once and for all” in the city. The four-person group has until the fall to deliver recommendations to the mayor.
Polanco had a documented history of seizures and schizophrenia and had recently been hospitalized to receive psychiatric treatment before being placed in solitary confinement at Rikers last summer. According to a scathing report recently released by the city jails’ oversight board, Polanco was placed in punitive segregation because the Department of Corrections did not want to place her in general population housing areas with cisgender women. Before her hospitalization, Polanco was kept with other trans inmates.
Polanco died after suffering a seizure on her ninth day of confinement. The report found that corrections officers did not follow jail guidelines which require staffers to check inmates every 15 minutes. Corrections officers left Polanco unchecked for an hour and a half after seeing she was unresponsive. When they finally entered her cell, Polanco was dead.
The 27-year-old woman was at the notorious New York City jail because she couldn’t afford $500 bail for misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges.
“We are grateful for the mayor’s call for justice in Layleen’s name,” Attorney David Shanies, who’s representing the Polanco family, told The Root. “Layleen’s family and their many supporters have fought for this every day since we lost Layleen last June. The family will not rest until the Mayor follows through on his commitment to end solitary confinement and implement the reforms needed to prevent future tragedies like the one they have suffered.”
Following the report’s release, de Blasio announced on Friday that 17 corrections officers will be disciplined (interestingly, earlier this month, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark announced that her office would not seek criminal charges in Polanco’s death). On Monday, three officers and one captain were suspended without pay immediately upon de Blasio’s announcement, which the mayor pledged was “just the start” of the disciplinary process.
Shanies told the Root the Polanco family “welcomed” the news that the correctional staff responsible for Polanco’s death will be subject to departmental discipline, but noted they still do not know specifics, including the identities of the staffers:
“We will reserve judgment until we know the facts, and the family will see this through to the end.”