From the Bureaus

17 Rikers Workers to Be Disciplined for Transgender Woman’s Death in Solitary

transgender: Person standing next to window holds yellow dress

Niamh McDonnell

In a 2019 file photo, a friend holds the yellow dress Layleen Polanco was wearing the night they first met.

NEW YORK — The New York City Department of Corrections will discipline 17 officers for their conduct surrounding the death of 27-year-old Layleen Polanco, a transgender Rikers Island inmate being housed in solitary confinement.

The decision comes after the New York City Board of Corrections (BOC) released a scathing 16-page report that documents how both DOC and Correctional Health Services (CHS), which administers medical aid to inmates, ignored signs that Polanco was not medically fit for solitary confinement.

Polanco, who had schizophrenia and frequent epileptic seizures, died in her cell in June 2019. She had been arrested for allegedly attempting to bite a taxi driver and was being held on $500 bail. She was unattended for nearly two hours before staff tried to assist her, according to the report.

ny bureauDespite it being against DOC policy to house inmates with medical conditions in solitary confinement, the report charges medical staff cleared her to be housed in the unit anyway.

In a joint statement with Mayor Bill de Blasio, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said DOC tries to provide a humane facility for inmates.

“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,” she said.

Despite claims by the department that facilities are humane, policy surrounding transgender inmates is not always clear, even to department officials.

After Polanco, a transgender woman, became involved in several intrapersonal conflicts while housed in both the transgender housing units at Rikers, the report says staff considered moving Polanco into a male housing unit. After medical staff cleared her, she was placed in solitary confinement where she later died.

Press officials for the Department of Corrections could not be reached for comment about their transgender housing policy.

David Shaines, an attorney who represents Polanco’s family in a federal lawsuit against the city, said in a statement that while the announced disciplining of the 17 is a good first step, more should be done.

“As important as individual accountability is, Layleen’s family is focused on institutional accountability,” Shaines said, adding, “Suspending or even firing individual employees will not save the next Layleen from dying. We need to treat trans women as women. We need to end abusive solitary confinement. We need to treat people in jail as humans deserving safety and dignity.”

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark declined to prosecute any of the prison or medical staff who came into contact with Polanco in a separate report issued June 4.

Clark suggested that her office was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt whether staff had known her underlying medical conditions would result in her death.

The BOC report also makes a series of recommendations that both DOC and CHS should implement to prevent this from happening again.

It includes broad changes to how staff intervene in inmate conflicts and suggests the DOC revise its policy of transgender housing so that transgender women are housed  in a general population setting with women whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth.

Shaines said he and the family agree with many of the improvements outlined in the report and want the city to implement them as quickly as possible.

“We urge the mayor to stand up for real change by announcing that the city will implement the two dozen reforms urged by the Board of Correction in response to Layleen’s death,” he said.


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