Layleen Polanco, a trans woman, died in prison. Guards idly did nothing for 90 minutes before getting help, horrifying footage shows

Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco's death spared outcry for typifying the failures of the criminal justice system for trans women of colour. (Facebook/Polanco family attorney)

Officers swung open the iron doors of the cell of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco and called her name. They believed the Afro-Latinx trans woman was simply asleep while in solitary confinement.

She was dead.

Polanco, a member of one of the most storied groups in New York City’s drag ball scene, the House of Xtravaganza, could not afford the $500 bail after being charged for misdemeanour assault in 2019.

So she was sent to Rikers Island in New York City. There, when the door was closed to her cell on June 7, 2019, she went unchecked by correction officers for a roughly 45-minute stretch, despite jail policies that she needed to be checked every 15.

Startling surveillance footage obtained and released by Polanco’s family showed officers take more than an hour and a half to call emergency services after Polanco suffered an epileptic seizure in her cell.

As the US reckons with its dense history of racist practices, the case typifies the exact pattern of discrimination against queer civilians of colour that officials have sworn to end or refused to even acknowledge. Coming after the death of George Floyd issued a sweeping challenge to police and criminal justice authorities.

Layleen Polanco: Prison correction officers opened her cell to find her dead. They laughed. 

Polanco’s family combed through more than 10 hours of security footage, they claimed, from a camera inside the restrictive housing unit Rose M Singer Center where the 27-year-old’s cell was located.

“The video is the last piece of the puzzle,” David Shanies, an attorney for Polanco’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of New York and Rikers staffers, told NBC News.

“It’s the last bit of indifference to her life that we saw and recklessness to a person who obviously needed help.”

Friends and family said that Polanco had a seizure disorder that the Department of Corrections was aware of. But last week, the New York City Department of Investigation, tasked with overseeing city employees and contractors, alongside the Bronx District Attorney’s Office concluded that jail staffers were not criminally responsible for her death.

The 24-page report added that the correction officers face possible administrative action.

Shaines voiced that the footage adds details to what happened that investigators failed to mention, the latest turn in a topsy-turvy case where witness statements tend to chaff with official accounts.

For example, Shaines said, jail personnel claimed they believed Polanco to be asleep. But the video showed multiple officers starting into her cell, calling for others to look: “It’s not something that you do for somebody who you think is asleep.”

The footage showed guards routinely checking on the inmate up until 1:42pm. From this point, there is a 47-minute-long gap until another officer checks on Polanco at 2:27pm.

Art 2:45pm, two correction officers begin knocking on Polanco’s cell, stretching leisure before opening the door to find her turned over on her bed with vomit on her face, began calling her name before laughing.

“It was horrifying for the family to see this footage,” Shaines said.

“They were completely unprepared for what they saw. They all broke into hysterical crying, understandably.

“And to this day, Layleen’s mother is haunted by the images of the guard laughing at her daughter,” before adding that the laughter is “unfathomable, and it’s really just a symbol of the complete disregard the entire system had for Layleen.”

The death of Layleen Polanco typifies the ‘neglect and humiliation’ of trans prisoners. 

The New York City Anti-Violence project said the video exposed “neglect and humiliation” of Polanco.

Executive director Beverly Tillery told Buzzfeed News: “Thousands of transgender people are regularly subjected to neglect and violence and stripped of their humanity within our nation’s jails and prisons.

“These acts of state violence have to stop.”

In a statement to NBC News, Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said her department will pursue internal disciplinary measures.

“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.”