Bill de Blasio seems perplexed by circumstances that led to a trans woman’s death at Rikers Island. He shouldn’t be.
When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was interviewed this week on a local news network, he was asked about Layleen Polanco, the 27-year-old transgender woman who was recently found dead in her cell at Rikers Island. The specific cause of her death is not known, but why was she held for two months on $500 bail for two misdemeanor charges? “Well, that’s unusual,” he stammered, “I don’t know, I need to get you an answer on why that would be.” He seemed genuinely perplexed. “Obviously, we’ve been moving consistently to having alternatives to incarceration, and our jail population is down over 30 percent.”
That’s all true, and under those circumstances, de Blasio’s confusion is understandable. This edition of The Daily Appeal will explore how the system, even a system that is implementing real reforms, still fails people, especially vulnerable people like Polanco. The Daily Appeal spoke to David Miranda, a longtime public defender in New York City who previously worked as the criminal defense attorney for the Peter Cicchino Youth Project, whose clients are homeless and street-involved young people who overwhelmingly identify as LGBTQ. Unlike the mayor, Miranda was not surprised to hear any of the news. “I wish I could say that I was shocked but I wasn’t.”
In 2017, Polanco was targeted in a sting operation by the NYPD, “which deployed undercover police officers to solicit sex acts in exchange for money,” reports Vice. Polanco allegedly agreed, and she was arrested. The officers said they found a small amount of drugs on her, and charged her with misdemeanor drug possession. Polanco was not taken into custody and instead received a desk appearance ticket. When she went to court, no bail was set. So far so good, right? Not exactly.
Why target her in the first place? Sting operations, especially those that go after people engaged in sex work and drug use, ensnare marginalized people, people who are often causing no harm but are suffering harm. This includes trans women, especially trans women of color. As Raven Rakia reported for The Appeal, “The NYPD recently settled a lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society during which a police officer admitted to looking for Adam’s apples when deciding whom to arrest for prostitution.”
Miranda says we need to ask why police arrested Polanco in the first place, but we also need to take another step back. “It starts with the family,” said Miranda, who grew up gay in the South Bronx. “You have an identity as a trans person, you might be coming to grips with. You start expressing that as a child and your family starts to say things about you, call you names, or they start rejecting you. You go to school, and school is basically torture because that’s where you’re called even more names and made to feel different. School authorities aren’t helpful. So you no longer want to go to school, you don’t finish school, you grow up. Let’s say you assert your trans identity. It’s hard to find a job because no one wants to hire you because of their own feelings about trans people. They’re not going to put you doing customer service, so then you’re driven into an underground economy that’s criminalized, and you wind up in the system.”
“The question is, did that person do anything wrong?”
The system continued to process Polanco through what it considered its gentler side. She was sent to a courtroom devoted to human trafficking and was offered an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, which meant her case would be dismissed if she complied with certain conditions. Those conditions, for her, involved mandatory counseling, and she missed some of the sessions. The judge issued warrants for her arrest.
We don’t know why she missed those sessions, but we do know Polanco struggled with homelessness, and instability makes it much more difficult to comply with court requirements. Miranda notes that this is common. There is a serious nexus between LGBTQ identity and homelessness, especially among young people of color. “We would meet our clients at the gay homeless youth shelter,” he said.
So in April, when Polanco was arrested on misdemeanor charges after what police described as an altercation with a taxi driver, the judge saw the warrants from the previous case and set bail at $500. Rosa Goldensohn has been reporting on the case for The City, and writes that a few days later, “she was ordered released in the assault case. But the $500 bail on the drug and prostitution charges still stood.” Why did the judge set bail? And why would the prosecutor request bail?
Miranda suggests that even when people in Polanco’s position have missed court, it’s hard to put the blame squarely on them. “It’s actually society that almost set this person up, made it impossible to get ahead. And then they walk into a courtroom and God forbid they miss court, we lock them up and throw away the key.” Polanco was unable to pay the $500. She sat in jail.
At Rikers, Polanco was housed in a dedicated unit for transgender people. Again, this unit was a welcome development, but it was not enough. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 34 percent of transgender people held in prisons and jails report at least one incident of sexual violence, but Miranda thinks this is a severe underestimate. And, as Miranda points out, “Rikers is the worst place in the city to be sick,” no matter who you are. And two people who were incarcerated with Polanco told Gothamist that she was sent to solitary confinement even though 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. Solitary “is horrible. They put you there and they just leave you there,” Sotomayor explained. (The Department of Correction says Polanco was placed in restrictive housing, not segregated housing, which is slightly less restrictive.)
“Jail officials put Polanco in solitary as punishment for her part in a fight,” Goldensohn reports. Given that solitary is torture, this is a bad solution under any circumstance, but in this case it seems particularly ill advised, and particularly common. “There is an increased incidence among trans folks of solitary and suicide watch,” says Miranda, which are pretty much the same in practice. “Trans people are going to be targeted for abuse and harassment, so if they fight back and try to defend themselves, they wind up in solitary.” And even when they don’t fight back, they are placed in protective custody, which is also basically solitary confinement. “It’s almost like they’re punished for being who they are in a jail setting,” says Miranda. “Solitary can, as we know, exacerbate or create [physical] health and mental health issues and trauma.”
All of this helps explain why Miranda was not surprised when he heard of Polanco’s death.
Even on the outside, Miranda adds, being trans or gay or gender nonconforming can lead to “a sort of PTSD. You’re walking around and you’re constantly on guard. It’s a sense of hypervigilance.” That kind of constant harassment and vigilance could explain the alleged altercation that led to Polanco’s April arrest, he said. I asked how he would resolve these issues, and he suggested mental health services. “Isn’t that kind of backwards, though?” I asked. He paused. “Yes. It is messed up that we set them up with mental health services when it’s society that needs help. That’s what’s twisted about all of this.”