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Trans Woman’s Death in Rikers is Still a Mystery. But Why Was She There At All?

Though little is known about how Layleen Polanco died, advocates say her story highlights New York City’s flawed approach to criminal justice.

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News of Layleen Polanco’s death at Rikers Island last Friday sparked an outcry this week from advocates and public officials across New York City.

Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, was found dead in her cell at the Rose M. Singer Center. She was being held on $500 bail for old drug and prostitution charges after she was arrested for assaulting a taxi driver. She was at Rikers for nearly two months.

On Monday, hundreds of people gathered in Manhattan to demand justice and accountability for her death.

The city’s Department of Correction has not yet released a cause of death but said it was not due to violence. Representatives for Polanco’s family said Monday that she suffered from a seizure disorder.

Though the circumstances of her death remain unclear, advocates say Polanco’s situation shows how the city’s policing and prosecution practices can trap people, and particularly trans people, in a cycle of incarceration.

“While we mourn Layleen, we know that this is not an exception, but the structural impact of jails,” Albert Saint Jean, an organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and a member of No New Jails, said in an email to The Appeal. “No amount of retraining, no protective measure, no investigation, no apology will make carceral institutions safe for black trans women.”

Before Polanco’s most recent charges, she was arrested in 2017 for possessing what police called a “crack pipe” and allegedly agreeing to trade sex for money, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Advocates say trans women of color are heavily policed. 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.

According to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, Polanco’s 2017 case was diverted to Human Trafficking Intervention Court, where most prostitution cases in the city are heard, but when she missed court dates, bench warrants were issued for her arrest.

Her experience highlights the reason local and statewide advocacy groups are pushing for full decriminalization of sex work, rather than just the diversion of cases to special courts that require compliance with court-mandated social services in exchange for freedom.

“The clients that we serve view diversion court and criminal court as one and the same,” Jessica Peñaranda, director of movement building at Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, said in a statement from DecrimNY. “The trauma and violence of interacting with court officers, police officers, judges and district attorneys who have authority to send you to jail, all of that is no different.”

On Monday in Albany, Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and Senator Julia Salazar introduced a bill that would fully decriminalize sex work, and civil rights groups are pushing to strike “loitering with intent to solicit” from the state penal code.

Polanco’s death also raises questions about how trans people arrested in New York are held while awaiting trial. She was detained in a housing unit specifically for transgender women, but was said to be in solitary confinement at the time of her death due to an altercation with another detainee.

A spokesperson for the Board of Correction said that meant she could be isolated as long as 23 hours per day. According to the Department of Correction, detainees in restricted housing are given up to seven hours out of their cells each day.

Trans women across the country are subject to violence in jail and prison. A report from the Bureau of Justice found that 34 percent of trans people experience an episode of sexual violence while incarcerated. To combat such violence, prison officials often rely on solitary confinement, or “administrative segregation” as it is sometimes known.

And that’s dangerous, too, Beverly Tillery, director of the Anti-Violence Project, told The Appeal. “Because we know that locking people up in solitary confinement … is paramount to torture for people,” she said. “It’s damaging emotionally, psychologically. It’s damaging physically to people.”

For the last several years, advocates have been pushing the Department of Correction to find better ways to protect trans women in their custody. In 2015, the department opened a transgender housing unit (THU) on Rikers Island. And in 2018, the Board of Correction, which oversees Rikers and other jails, implemented new minimum standards for housing transgender detainees. According to the standards, expressed gender identity must be taken into “serious consideration” before the Department of Correction chooses where to place a transgender detainee, with an eye toward ensuring the person’s health and safety.

Despite these standards, the department continues to house trans women in men’s jail facilities. In April of this year, according to Department of Correction testimony, only 16 trans women were being held in the 26-bed transgender housing unit, while 23 were in Rose M. Singer’s general population, and 24 were being housed in male facilities.

It’s not entirely clear why the THU is underutilized. A February 2018 report by the correction board suggested that transgender detainees were not being notified that it was an option. Brittany Cooper of Brooklyn Defender Services, testified at a Board of Correction hearing that her client, whom she identified as Ms. T, was not informed of the THU during intake and was placed in a male facility despite identifying as a woman. When Ms. T learned about the unit and asked staff, she was told the THU would be worse and decided to stay in the male facility based on this information.

According to the Department of Correction, there are currently seven trans women in the THU, and that number fluctuates based on requests for THU housing.

Many activists say Polanco’s death is proof that Rikers Island, a notorious jail scheduled to be shuttered by 2027, needs to be closed immediately.

“It really needs to happen right away,” Tillery said. “Because people are clearly in danger all the time at Rikers.”

Ashoka Jegroo contributed reporting.