A Trans Woman Died In A New York City Jail. Now Activists Are Helping Her Family Get Answers

Layleen Polanco was found in her cell after being held on $500 bail

By Mary Emily O’Hara

“When you’re a young trans person, you have the trans women and people around you to look to when you imagine where you want to see yourself in your life,” Pose star Indya Moore said at a Monday night protest in New York City. “Layleen was one of those girls, for me.”

Moore was referring to Layleen Polanco, sometimes called Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza. The 27-year-old was a member of the vogue ballroom community’s House of Xtravaganza, and a young trans woman of Dominican heritage. ("Layleen was loving, caring, would take her shirt off her back to give you," her sister Melania Brown remembered at the same rally.) But a misdemeanor charge somehow led to Polanco being found dead Friday in solitary confinement at Rikers Island, a New York City jail infamous for allegations of abuse by its officers.

Prior to an April arrest, Polanco was enrolled in an alternative-to-incarceration program and had missed some of her court dates, triggering a warrant, THE CITY reported. Held on $500 bail, advocates said in a press release Monday that she was being held in solitary confinement despite Rikers staff being aware of a health condition that caused life-threatening seizures. Ironically, New York passed a law this April ending cash bail for low-level offenses, but the law doesn’t go into effect until January of next year. If Polanco had been arrested then, she would never have been at Rikers at all.

New York’s Department of Correction (DOC) says it isn’t sure what happened. In a Monday email to MTV News, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said “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.”

The DOC says Polanco was found unresponsive in her cell by an officer conducting routine rounds, and that staff immediately performed CPR and tried to revive Polanco using a defibrillator. When emergency medical staff arrived 11 minutes later, the DOC says, they also tried to revive her until finally pronouncing her dead around an hour after she was first discovered unconscious.

Those explanations are not enough for Polanco’s family, who accused the city of “trying to sweep her death under the rug” in a statement provided by their attorney, David B. Shanies. “As we gather to mourn this tremendous loss, we are left shocked and outraged by the stony silence from the Department of Corrections, Mayor’s Office, NYPD, and city government. The family demands answers, and we are entitled to them,” the statement said.

On Monday, a crowd of LGBTQ+ advocates joined Polanco’s family, filling the streets in downtown Manhattan demanding answers — and justice. The protest was organized by the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), a nonprofit that tracks community reports of anti-LGBTQ hate violence around the country; a slew of similar organizations co-sponsored the rally.

Eliel Cruz, director of communications at AVP, said the timing of Polanco’s death couldn’t be worse.

“We’re angry. This is really frustrating to be celebrating the 50 year anniversary of Stonewall, which commemorates [anti-LGBTQ+] state violence,” Cruz said in a phone interview with MTV News, citing “the continuation of state violence enacted on queer people’s lives, specifically trans individuals,” as a renewed source of pain.

Not only did Polanco’s death come during what is supposed to be a celebratory time for queer and trans people — a special Pride month full of reflections on the 50 years since the Stonewall Inn police riots — it also comes on the heels of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing the city’s first monument to trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The juxtaposition of events has many trans advocates asking whether the city is doing enough to help the community, or whether it is simply pandering by putting up a new statue.

Mayor DeBlasio’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a Monday tweet, AVP Director of Community Organizing and Public Advocacy Audacia Ray said that representatives from the mayor’s office and the office of New York City Council speaker Corey Johnson attended the rally.

Cruz said the city is making progress on trans policy, but still isn’t doing enough. “The DOC implemented policies last year that allow trans folks to be housed in the correct gender unit, but as we see in Layleen’s case that does not keep TGNC [trans and gender non-conforming] people safe within the system.”

Plus, those very recent policies enacted to protect trans people in custody aren’t always enforced or adhered to. Cruz said AVP wrote advocacy letters in two separate court cases over the last six months involving trans women who were being housed in the men’s unit at Rikers in clear violation of new rules.

Regardless of where incarcerated trans people are placed while in custody, they face higher rates of violence than other inmates. The 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, conducted nationally by the National Center for Transgender Equality, found that trans people are nearly 10 times as likely to suffer sexual or physical violence at the hands of fellow inmates, and five times as likely to suffer abuse at the hands of staff.

“There are laws in place that respect the needs and rights of transgender prisoners (Including the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Eighth Amendment),” said Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager for National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), in an email to MTV News. “And it’s incumbent upon correctional facilities to abide by those laws in the interest of public safety and their own humanity.”

Branstetter cited a 2017 court settlement in the case of a trans woman who says she was raped by a Rikers corrections officer named Luis Galan. After paying $80,000 to the victim, the Department of Correction announced that Galan would stay on the job, saying the city did not believe he committed the assault.

“While the details around Layleen Polanco’s death remain unclear, we know the criminalization of transgender women of color contributes to their likelihood to face violence inside and outside of prison,” Branstetter added.

Polanco’s family said they were told it could take up to three months before an investigation and autopsy are complete. Until then, they wait without answers as to why Layleen is gone.