More than a year after the death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman of color, and in the midst of demonstrations against racism and police violence, justice seems to be somewhat achievable.
According to The New York Times, seventeen New York City corrections officers, including a captain, will be disciplined for their role in Polanco’s death at the Rikers Island prison complex.
The decision was announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said the captain and three other officers “had been suspended without pay immediately” for their conduct in the death of the young woman, who was found unresponsive in her cell after having an epileptic seizure.
“What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability,” de Blasio said in a statement.
Similarly, and as the Times continues, De Blasio’s announcement came three weeks after Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark said he would not be filing criminal charges in Polanco’s death after a six-month investigation.
However, the mayor was forced to take action after new footage from Rikers was released where guards can be seen waiting more than 90 minutes before asking for help for Polanco, ELLE said.
On the tape, officers can be seen laughing at the victim while shouting her name. Polanco was pronounced dead less than an hour later.
Polanco family attorney David Shanies called the video “horrifying for the family” and added the officers’ laughter is “a symbol of the complete disregard the entire system had for Layleen,” according to BuzzFeed News.
Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco was an Afro-Latina trans woman who died at Rikers on June 7, 2019 while in solitary confinement and after prison staff failed to provide her with medical care during an epileptic seizure.
A resident of Yonkers, N.Y., Polanco was part of the city’s ballroom scene and a member of the House of Xtravaganza, according to NBC News.
Her family explained that the young woman had been struggling with depression and trouble finding work, as is the case for so many in the LGBTQ+ community across the country.
She was last seen at home in April 2019, and was subsequently arrested on minor assault charges and held on $500 bail for a drug and sex work charge in 2017. Polanco was sent to jail because she could not afford bail.
A month later she was sentenced to 20 days of solitary confinement for a physical altercation with another individual in custody in the bedroom of the Transgender Housing Unit. According to Rikers’ report, on May 15 Polanco showed symptoms of psychological distress, including suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and panic attacks. After attempting to attack an officer, she was sent to Elmhurst Hospital under a diagnosis of “psychosis/mania” and spent eight days in a psychiatric prison ward.
Doctors had recommended avoiding solitary confinement because of the risk of aggravating her seizure disorder, and because of the difficulty of knowing where to place her, Polanco ended up in a men’s facility, even though her gender identity was different.
Polanco’s death sparked strong protests from activist organizations, including the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which demanded that the governor and mayor issue autopsy results, dissolve solitary confinement and restrictive units in New York State, decriminalize sex work, and increase support and solutions for transgender people in the state.
Today, in the wake of the severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the conditions and risks to which transgender people in the country are exposed are more pronounced, and solutions are conspicuous by their absence.