17 corrections officers will be disciplined over the death of Layleen Polanco, a trans woman who died in solitary confinement

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)

A total of 17 corrections officers are to be disciplined for their conduct regarding Layleen Polanco, a trans woman of colour who died in solitary confinement in Rikers Island jail.

Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, 27, suffered a fatal epileptic seizure on June 7, 2019. She went unchecked by corrections officers for a roughly 45-minute stretch, despite jail policies stating she needed to be checked every 15 minutes.

As the City of New York faces a lawsuit for the “deliberate indifference” of corrections workers, it has been announced that three officers and one captain will be suspended without pay immediately.

The department of corrections made the announcement in a statement on Friday (June 26). It was not immediately clear what disciplinary actions the remaining 13 officers would face.

“We are committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane,” department of correction commissioner Cynthia Brann said.

“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.”

The “swift” discipline comes over a year after Polanco’s death in solitary confinement. It recently emerged that she was placed there because jail officials didn’t want her on a women’s ward.

She was sentenced to 20 days in the solitary cell while awaiting trial, despite the objections of at least one doctor due to her history of seizures. She also suffered from schizophrenia.

Several weeks before she died, Polanco had been hospitalised for psychiatric care after “showing radical changes in behaviour” including shouting, crying, rolling around on the floor, talking to herself, expressing suicidal thoughts and charging at a jail guard.

After returning to Rikers Island, jail staff tried to punish her by having her sent to restrictive housing, or solitary confinement, according to a new report compiled by New York City’s board of correction.

This placement was not authorised by her psychiatrist in light of her seizure disorder, as department of correction policies forbid solitary confinement if doing so would place a person “at heightened risk of death or serious physical harm”.

Despite this Polanco was placed in segregation and left unsupervised for almost an hour. “She had been dead so long that first responders found her body cold to the touch,” the lawsuit says.

New video footage from outside her cell reveals that guards tried to wake her for approximately an hour and a half before calling for help.

The report confirmed that Polanco was neglected while incarcerated, but the Bronx District Attorney’s Office concluded that jail staffers were not criminally responsible for her death. No charges have been filed.