Activists Demand Justice for Layleen Polanco, the 27-Year-Old Transgender Woman Who Died in Solitary Confinement



Facebook/Layleen Cubilette Polanco

On Monday night, hundreds gathered in Foley Square in New York City on behalf of Layleen Polanco, the 27-year-old transgender woman of color who recently died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. Here, what you need to know about Polanco and the outcry for information surrounding her death.

What Happened

On June 7th, Polanco was found unresponsive in her cell, though it is still unclear how exactly she died. She was being held at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island, a woman’s facility, and is reported to have been in solitary confinement following an alleged fight. According to the Washington Post, the New York City Department of Correction reported that a custodial staff member tried to revive her using CPR and then a defibrillator before a member of the medical staff arrived. She was pronounced dead by 3:45 P.M.

The DOC tweeted on June 8th that it is investigating her tragic death, writing, “We take this matter extremely seriously. We have so far determined the death was not the result of violence or foul play. We will share more information as we determine the cause.”

The Post reported that Polanco was arrested on April 13th and detained since April 16th on misdemeanor charges of assault and criminal possession of a controlled substance.

The Response

The Legal Aid Society, which represented Polanco, released a statement following the news of her death, saying, “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. 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.”

Polanco’s family also released a statement through their lawyers, saying, “We are heartbroken over the death of our beloved Layleen, whose bright light was an inspiration to all who knew her. as we gather to mourn this tremendous loss, we are left shocked and outraged by the stony silence from the Department of Correction, Mayor’s Office, NYPD, and City government. The family demands answers, and we are entitled to them.”

Activists have also spoken out about her death—and the lack of information surrounding it. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that no one should be kept in solitary confinement, noting Polanco’s story:

And actress and transgender activist Indya Moore tweeted about Polanco, saying, “She was one of the most beautiful women I ever seen who was trans. She and so many other girls were an example to me.” They also spoke at the protests Monday evening.

No New Jails NYC also held a march for Polanco and other LGBTQ+ people of color; the organization supports closing down Rikers Island without building new jails.

How to Help

Polanco’s sister has set up a GoFundMe page for funeral costs. There, she writes, “We will make sure her story is heard after we find out what happened. Please helps us lay her to rest. This was a very unexpected death and a big loss to her family and friends.” The funeral is set to take place on Saturday, and the family has asked attendees to wear colorful clothing to the service.


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