Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza was a daughter, mother, friend, and trans-Afro-Latina woman who died on Rikers Island in New York City on June 7th.
Four days after her untimely death on June 11th, Layleen’s biological and chosen family (the house of Xtravaganza), community leaders, and New York City citizens gathered in Foley Square in Lower Manhattan’s Court District to demand answers from the city on the events and reasons for Layleen’s death. The air was heavy with humidity and righteous anger as rally attendees and speakers shouted “shut it down” and “justice for Layleen” before hearing what community leaders had to say.
Little official information is known about the events that led to Layleen’s death. However, those who were close to Layleen know that her history of medical health problems – including a condition that caused her to have seizures – may have played a role in her sudden death. “They left her in a solitary confinement cell by herself after she was in the medical unit for weeks. They knew Layleen was sick and had medical issues but they left her unsupervised to the point of death,” shouted Cecilia Gentili, founder of Transgender Equity Consulting.
It is important to note that Riker’s Island is a jail that incarcerates people who are unable to pay their cash bail for a number of reasons including economic hardship. Layleen was being held at Rikers on a $500 bail and was set to be released a few days after her death.
In 2010 16-year-old Kalief Browder was jailed on Rikers Island for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack just because his family couldn’t pay $3,000 in bail to get him out. He later committed suicide as a resent of the mental and emotional trauma he endured at Rikers Island. Essentially, Rikers Island jails financially poor people who can not pay the cash bail that has been set by judges.
For trans women — who on average have an annual income of $10,000 because of employment discrimination — a bail of $500 is 5% of a person’s annual income and an economic hardship. Although New York has a new law that goes into effect in January 2020 that effectively ends the cash bail system, people like Layleen are being held on bail and dying as a result.
Rikers has a history of mistreating those jailed at the site, and although New York City positions itself as an “open” and “socially liberal city,” laws like the Section 240.37 — “Loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense” — disproportionately lead to the profiling and incarceration of trans women of color.
Layleen’s death demonstrates the lack of compassion, common sense policy, and indifference that trans women of color face – even in a city like New York – and how it can have fatal consequences. A 2016 report found that half of all people killed by police officers have a disability, and “58% of transgender individuals have experienced harassment, abuse or other mistreatment by law enforcement agents last year” according to a study released by the National Center for Transgender Equality. And although the New York City Speaker, Mayor, and City Council all agree that Riker’s Island should be closed, they plan to keep the notoriously dangerous jail open for at least five more years.
Other attendees at the rally spoke about the unbearable heat that happens on Rikers Island during the summer months and how it is even more unbearable in solitary confinement. Susi Vassallo is an associate professor of emergency medicine at the NYU School of Medicine. She investigated the temperature conditions at Rikers and described them as “a serious health threat” and “unsafe for inmates.” Others who have been jailed in solitary confinement at Rikers have shared that when it’s hot outside it’s boiling inside Rikers and when it’s cold outside it’s freezing inside the jails. The temperature high in New York City on the day of Layleen’s death was 80 degrees.
Layleen died because of discriminatory policing practices driven by inadequate policy, the poor conditions and supervision practices at Rikers Island, and because she was a financially poor Black trans-Latina woman. Consequently, it seems these exact reasons are why investigators are releasing little to no official information about her death. Layleen’s families and the New York City community continues to demand answers.
It is up to those who are still living to fight for details of Layleen’s death and to fight to make sure not one more person dies because they live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. As Raquel Willis stated at the June 11th rally, “we must be as radical in the ways that we love trans women as they are about hating us.”