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Trans Woman Found Dead Inside Rikers Island Jail Cell

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Rikers Island Cdogsimmons / Wikicommons

A transgender woman has died while incarcerated on Rikers Island.

Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latinx detainee, was found dead inside her cell on Friday afternoon, officials said. According to the Department of Correction, an officer discovered Polanco unconscious at 2:51 p.m., and she was pronounced dead less than an hour later.

The cause of death is unknown, though authorities said that preliminary reports showed no sign of violence or foul play. Polanco had been locked up at the Rose M. Singer women’s facility on Rikers Island since April for an alleged misdemeanor assault in Harlem.

According to the city's inmate lookup, she appeared in Manhattan Criminal Court, where her bail was set at $500 for the alleged offense. Last year, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced that his office would stop requesting cash bail in most non-violent felony cases. A spokesperson for the Manhattan D.A.'s office told Gothamist they were "still looking into" why bail was set in this case.

Just weeks prior to Polanco's arrest, state lawmakers reached an agreement to end the use of cash bail for low-level offenses, though that law won't go into effect until January, 2020.

In addition to raising questions about why Polanco was incarcerated in the first place, advocates and elected officials have pointed to a pattern of abuse faced by trans people on Rikers Island from both jail staff and fellow inmates.

Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the district where the facility is located, noted that she'd previously heard from transgender constituents who said they were refused medical treatment, misgendered by corrections employees, and forced into cells with men.

Nationwide, about 34 percent of transgender people held in prisons and jails report experiencing at least one incident of sexual violence, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"Ms. Polanco’s passing is a tragic reminder of the heightened risk and physical and emotional torture that transgender people—especially those from communities of color—face in the criminal legal system, particularly while in custody," a spokesperson for the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. "Her heartbreaking and untimely death warrants a swift, complete, independent, and transparent investigation from the City. We join New Yorkers in demanding justice for Ms. Polanco, her family, and for her community.”

A DOC spokesperson said in a statement, "Any death in our custody is a tragic loss, and we are looking into how this happened."

The New York City Anti-Violence Project will host a rally to demand an investigation into Polonco's on Monday night.

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