Additional reporting by Savannah Jacobson
Two days after Layleen Polanco died on Rikers Island, a second detainee died in Department of Correction custody at Bellevue Hospital, before he was ever able to see a lawyer.
Jose Rivera, 54, spent a little over a month in and out of the hospital and the city jail’s medical unit before succumbing on June 9, according to Lorraine McEvilley, the Legal Aid Society’s director of the Parole Revocation Defense Unit.
The two deaths come as state lawmakers consider whether to move forward with reforms to parole, sex work decriminalization, and solitary confinement laws before the session ends next week.
Rivera’s legal odyssey began when he was found lying unconscious on a Brooklyn street by police on April 26 and brought to Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with an undisclosed illness, according to the state Department of Corrections.
From there, he was brought to the Anna M. Kross jail on Rikers on May 7 for failing to show up to nearly three years of parole hearings tied to a drug sale offense dating to 2010.
While in jail, he missed court hearings on May 17 and June 4, and never once met with a lawyer, because he was too sick, McEvilley said. In New York, parole violators do not need to be seen by a judge within 24 hours, unlike when people are first charged with a crime.
Rivera, who appeared to be homeless, suffered from liver problems. But it is unclear what caused his death, according to Legal Aid. The case — like all fatalities in custody — is being investigated by the state Board of Correction.
‘A Tragic Loss’
“The death of any person in our custody is a tragic loss,” said Peter Thorne, a city Correction Department spokesperson. “The detainee was housed in a medical setting since entering our custody last month.”
Criminal justice advocates pushing to ease the types of parole violations that lead to jail point to his case as an example of a system in need of major reforms.
“The reforms definitely would have helped him,” said McEvilley. “If he could have seen a judge within 24 or 48 hours while he was still in a condition to meet counsel, maybe the judge would have been willing to release him.”
Under proposed legislation, parole absconders like Rivera, who had a prior violation, would be placed in jail for a maximum of a week.
“Getting folks on technical violations out of Rikers is critical to the overall goal of closing Rikers and shrinking the overall detention footprint in the city,” said Gabriel Sayegh of the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, which is advocating for the bill.
The legislation in Albany is currently stuck in committee.
Parole violators are the only population in jail that has increased over the past several years.
From 2014 through 2017, the number of technical parole violators in city jails grew by 15%, while the overall population dropped by more than 20%, a Columbia University Justice Lab report found last year.
Polanco Case Unfolds
Meanwhile, new details emerged showing how city reforms, specialized courts and charity bail funds did not allow Polanco, 27, to escape a fatal criminal justice trajectory. It began with an alleged offer of oral sex to an undercover cop inside the Empire Hotel in Manhattan and ended with her dying inside B12 cell number six in the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island.
Asked Monday why Polanco was in jail on misdemeanors for nearly two months, Mayor Bill de Blasio called her situation “unusual.”
“Obviously, we’ve been moving consistently to have alternatives to incarceration,” he told NY1 political anchor Errol Louis.
But so-called alternatives to incarceration did not ultimately create an exit from the criminal justice system for Polanco, described by friends as “spunky,” “bubbly” and “full of life.”
She was offered a ticket to appear in court instead of immediate jail in 2017, but when she failed to appear, a warrant for her arrest was issued anyway. She was sent to Manhattan’s human trafficking court part, a “problem-solving” court, which aims to refer people it deems victims of sex work to services instead of prosecuting them. But she missed court dates there, too, and her case was never dismissed.
A bail fund bailout could have been Polanco’s last lifeline. It never materialized.
In April, Polanco was again arrested for assaulting a taxi driver. The Manhattan district attorney’s office requested $1,000 bail on the cases. Judge Michael Gaffey set it at $500. When, a few days later, Polanco was ordered released on the cabbie assault charges, the 2017 case kept her locked up.
Polanco’s Legal Aid lawyer argued against the bail, the organization said. But the defense attorney did not request a bail review by another judge, according to the Office of Court Administration.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, said the judge was “well within his discretion to set a bail amount,” noting Polanco had missed eight court dates in the 2017 case.
Legal Aid then referred Polanco’s case to the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund for help paying, but they did not. The bail fund’s director, Peter Goldberg, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Last year, there were more than ten thousand admissions to city jails for people awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. As of April, there were about 520 people locked up on such charges at a time. Ten percent of those who take 30 days or longer to make bail in city jails are held on misdemeanors, a MOCJ report from May said.
A memorial service for Polanco will be held Saturday in Yonkers. Family requested that attendees “wear bright colors of the rainbow,” according to a Facebook post from her sister.
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