Layleen Polanco, a trans woman, died in solitary confinement because jail officials didn’t want her on a women’s ward

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)

Another day, another grim development in the case of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a trans woman whose death in a New York City jail has unfolded into a drawn-out quest for justice.

According to a new report compiled by New York City’s Board of Correction, the city’s jail oversight agency, Polanco, 27, was neglected while incarcerated in Rikers last June.

The Board detailed how the Department of Corrections exploited a policy of housing trans women in separate facilities from cis women to justify placing Polanco in solitary confinement.

In the cold, concrete room, Polanco – who was placed in jail awaiting trial for misdemeanour charges, unable to afford her $500 bail – spent her final moments. Officers swung open the iron doors of the cell on June 7, believing Polanco was asleep.

She had suffered an epileptic seizure, and had died.

As the US reckons with its dense history of racism, the case typifies the pattern of discrimination against queer civilians of colour that continue to persist.

Layleen Polanco experienced hallucinations and suicidal ideations. She was cleared nine days later for solitary. 

The report addressed how Rikers officials, at the pressure of the Department, housed Layleen Polanco away from the general population housing areas. Rickers officials even considered Polanco be placed in a men’s ward.

Moreover, the report found, the Correctional Health Services’ (CHS) process for identifying people with medical conditions who should be excluded from solitary units is “insufficient, inconsistent, and potentially susceptible to undue pressure from” the Department.

Polanco stressed to jail administrators during her intake, in mid-April, that she suffered from a seizure disorder.

She would later be transferred to Elmhurst Hospital’s psychiatric prison ward, on May 15, after experiencing “radical changes in behaviour” ranging from hallucinations and shouting to crying and suicidal ideation.

Officials threw her back in solitary when she returned nine days later. Her history of seizure disorder at first prevented her from being approved for “a cell housing placement” on May 24.

But after a CHS medical doctor “cleared” her for solitary confinement, noting that “her condition has been stable”, she was briskly ordered to stay in the cell for 20 days. On the ninth day, she died.

Trans inmate left unattended for 57 minutes, 47 minutes and 41 minutes on the day she died. 

In her final hours, jail staffers failed to check her cell every 15 minutes, as per policy.

Alarming security camera footage seen by Polanco’s family showed her cell was unchecked for a nearly hour-long stretch. The report found staffers were “confused” by the policy, and correction officers took more than an hour and a half to call emergency services.

Family of Layleen Polanco, a member of one of the most storied groups in New York City’s ballroom scene, the House of Xtravaganza, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against New York City and various Rikers employees.

Earlier this year, 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.

In the report, the Board recommended that Department leaders, moving forward, do more to include trans inmates in the general population units that align with their genders.