Hundreds of people gathered in Foley Square on Monday night to honor the life of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman found dead in her cell on Rikers Island last week.
"We're going to use our pain as fuel that my sister gets justice," Melani Brown, Polanco's sister, told Gothamist after the rally.
Polanco had been held on Rikers since April 16th on misdemeanor assault charges, and her bail had been set at $500. According to The City, a judge had ordered her released on those assault charges, but she was still being held on drug and prostitution charges from 2017, after she had missed court appearances.
A spokesperson for Vance told Gothamist that they were "still looking into" why bail was requested in Polanco's case.
At Rikers' Rose M. Singer female facility, Polanco was held in one of two extra-large communal cells that house trans women.
Then, just before 3:00 p.m. last Friday, Correction officers found Polanco dead. Rikers staff attempted to revive her, but failed. There was no evidence "of violence or foul play,” the Correction Department said.
The cause of Polanco's death has yet to be determined, a spokesperson for the Office of the Medical Examiner confirmed.
— Bianey Garcia 🦋👠 (@BianeyDlaO) June 10, 2019
However, two former trans inmates held on Rikers with Polanco told Gothamist that she was sent to solitary confinement even though Rikers officials knew she had a history of seizures.
"A week before she had a seizure and it took more than 25 minutes for medical to get there," Alexie Sotomayor said.
"The SHU is horrible. They put you there and they just leave you there," Sotomayor explained, referring to the so-called Special Housing Unit where Polanco died. (The Correction Department denies that Polanco was held in the SHU—see the update below.)
David Shanies, an attorney representing Polanco's mother and sisters, told reporters at the rally that he did not accept the DOC's claim of no foul play at face value.
"They said that there was no violence involved," Shanies said. "Well, we certainly don't know that, and if anything we have reason to think that violence was involved. The family wants to get the facts and they deserve to get those facts."
Lina Rodriguez, another former trans inmate who said she was held with Polanco, said, "She wasn't a troublemaker. She was not suicidal at all. She had a seizure problem." Shanies also said that Polanco had a serious seizure disorder.
“Layleen’s family and all New Yorkers deserve answers, and we’re working quickly to determine the cause of her tragic death," Raul Contreras, a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office, said in a statement. "This case is still under investigation, but so far there is no evidence of violence or foul play. Our office will communicate closely with Layleen’s family to ensure they receive the answers they deserve.”
This isn't the first time a Rikers inmate died after being left unattended in a cell. Jerome Murdough, 56, a mentally ill homeless veteran, was left alone in a cell so long in February 2014 that he essentially cooked to death when the ventilation system malfunctioned and raised the temperature hot enough to kill.
The House of Xtravaganza, a drag ball family of which Polanco had been a member for 10 years, said in a statement, "Enough is enough. We know that trans and gender nonconforming folks are not safe in the system. It's past time to close Rikers."
As Monday’s rally ended, Gisele Alicea Xtravaganza, House Mother of the House of Xtravaganza, addressed the crowd.
"She was like an Angel to us," Alicea said. "And the fact that they left her. And they neglected her is not right! We have to find out what happened to our sister."
[UPDATE / 11:46 a.m.] After this story was published, the Correction Department said that Polanco was held in the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU) at the Rose M. Singer Center, not the SHU, and that RHU residents are allowed to exit their cell for up to seven hours a day. The DOC said that they do not allow women to be held in 23-hour solitary confinement.
The DOC declined to comment on Polanco's medical history.
“This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family. We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority,” DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Katherine Fung.