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When Martin Kaminer learned about Layleen Polanco, the transgender woman who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island while being held on $500 bail, he turned his outrage into action.

Kaminer, who read stories about Polanco’s June death in THE CITY, moved on what he describes as a no-brainer idea: a bail fund for transgender inmates.

He emailed “anyone and everyone,” and created the Emergency Release Fund.

“If a middle-aged father of two who dresses like a Best Buy sales attendant and three months ago knew not the first thing about the trans community, bail, or much of anything else can figure out that this is a problem that needs to be addressed, so can everyone else,” Kaminer said.

He put together a Facebook page and a barebones website that almost instantly took off.

The effort has generated more than $10,000 in donations from fewer than 100 donors in less than a month, according to Kaminer, 52, who works in IT and lives in Hells Kitchen.

The money has been used to free six transgender inmates so far, he said.

“All of the discrimination the trans community faces in their lives funnels them into the criminal justice system,” said Deborah Lolai, the LGBTQ client specialist at the Bronx Defenders.

Two of Lolai’s clients were bailed out by the fund after a fundraising push for their cases was posted on Facebook.

Like ‘the DMV on Steroids’

Chase Strangio, an ACLU lawyer, and Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, have taken a lead role in launching the fund.

The Emergency Release Fund has trained over a dozen volunteers on how to take bail money to city jails and wait for paperwork to be finalized. Kaminer likened the tedious process to “going to the DMV on steroids.”

Initially, the fund administrators intended to target transgender detainees facing misdemeanor charges, which was the case with Polanco, who died June 7. But lawyers with felony cases reached out, and it became clear that population also was in need.

Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012. Credit: Facebook

There are currently three other bail funds in the city, but they typically do not free detainees who have missed court dates or are charged with a felony.

Transgender people tend to have a harder time raising bail than other inmates because they are less likely to have family willing to vouch for them, according to Strangio.

“They don’t have contact with family members because their family members disowned them,” Strangio said, noting that some transgender inmates have long rap sheets “because they’ve been forced to do things to stay alive.”

Transgender people are also particularly vulnerable behind bars, according to one federal survey. They have a 10 times higher rate than other detainees of unwanted sexual activity with other inmates or prison staff, according to a 2011-12 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“Trans people face violence every day on the street that’s magnified tremendously for somebody who is incarcerated,” Goldfein said.

The city Correction Department designated a 26-bed housing area for transgender women in April 2015. But the department struggles to manage placements into the unit, according to a 2018 Board of Correction report.

There are typically around 10 people in the unit on a given day, department records show.

Lolai knows of at least 12 other transgender inmates who are in the general population in the city jails system where they are regularly harassed.

Death Spurs National Movement

Polanco was placed into the special trans unit at the Rose M. Singer on Rikers.

But she was moved to solitary for a 20-day sentence after a fight with another inmate. The 27-year old lived with epilepsy and schizophrenia, and should never have been put in solitary, according to a federal lawsuit filed by her mother.

Polanco died on the ninth day in the segregated housing unit. Her body was “cold to the touch” when emergency personnel arrived on June 7, the lawsuit alleges.

She was in jail on $500 bail linked to misdemeanor sex and drug possession charges. Her case was forwarded to a bail fund that declined to take her case for reasons that remain unknown. Polanco had missed several prior court dates.

Her death has garnered national attention, leading to calls to end or strictly limit the use of solitary confinement.

Kaminer pointed out Polanco died shortly before the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

“It’s clear something is very, very wrong,” he said.

Transgender people “are still being killed for who they are all across this country.”

CORRECTION (Sept. 6, 1:20 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misattributed quotes from Deborah Lolai, the LGBTQ client specialist at the Bronx Defenders, to Chase Strangio, an ACLU staff attorney.

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