Layleen Polanco, the trans woman who died in a Rikers Island solitary confinement cell last year, was pushed there by jailers over a doctor’s objections and despite her seizure disorder, the city’s jail oversight board found.
The scathing new report from the Board of Correction also found that city jail housing policy for transgender inmates like Polanco created “increased pressure” to isolate her.
Polanco, 27, died alone on June 7, 2019, after an epileptic seizure on her ninth day in solitary in the women’s jail on Rikers. She was being held on $500 bail.
“We tried very hard to get Inmate [Polanco] cleared [for segregation] but [Mental Health] just won’t clear her,” a Department of Correction Tour Commander wrote in an email two weeks before Polanco’s death, according to a Board of Correction report released Tuesday.
At the time, Polanco had just returned from a nine-day trip to Elmhurst Hospital “for psychosis/mania,” her family’s lawyer David Shanies said. Jail staff mulled putting her in protective custody, which is a form of isolation, or even a men’s facility, the report says.
The death review found a series of system failures in the jail’s placement of Polanco in solitary — and highlighted concerns for current inmates.
Correctional Health Service’s process for identifying people who are exempt from solitary confinement due to their medical history “is insufficient, inconsistent, and potentially susceptible to undue pressure from DOC,” according to the board.
Distraught and Suicidal
The report also portrays a woman in great psychological distress in the weeks before her death.
On a referral to mental health services form filled out May 15, 2019, a correction officer marked: “expressing a desire to commit suicide and/or attempting suicide;” “frequent displays of shouting, crying and/or screaming;” “having hallucinations/delusions;” “showing poor personal hygiene or appearance, doesn’t shave wash or change clothes, etc.;” and “being alarmed (frightened) or in a state of panic;” according to the report.
“In the notes section, the officer wrote ‘inmate randomly crying, shouting,’” the report said.
After she “charged” at an officer “with her fist out” and hit their arm, Polanco was taken to Elmhurst Hospital for nine days, according to the death review.
Upon her return on May 24, correction staff debated about where to place her. The department’s tour commander at Rose M. Singer Center wrote in an email that day that a psychiatrist could not authorize “a cell housing placement” for Polanco because of her seizure disorder, according to the report.
But six days later, a Correctional Health Services medical doctor did clear her for solitary after a chart review.
Polanco was jailed in April 2019 after a fight with a cab driver in which she allegedly bit him. Though she was ordered released on that charge a few days later, she stayed in jail because her $500 bail was attached to previous misdemeanor drug and sex work charges from 2017.
Her death spurred calls in New York and beyond for restricting or eliminating solitary confinement. As THE CITY reported last week, proposed reforms made by the Board of Correction are languishing.
“The well-documented indifference to this young woman’s life is heartbreaking and outrageous,” Shanies said in a statement Tuesday.
Pressure to Segregate Trans Inmates
The report connects some of the dots between Polanco’s death in a solitary cell and her status as a transgender woman. The Department of Correction’s policy not to house trans women with cisgender women in the general population of the women’s facility helped push her in to solitary confinement, the report says.
“DOC’s determination not to house a transgender woman in general population housing areas for cisgender women in May 2019 resulted in increased pressure to place Ms. Polanco in the RHU (Restricted Housing Unit) — a Unit unsuitable to manage both her medical and mental health needs,” it reads.
The report also counters a messaging campaign from City Hall and the Department of Correction that the city does not use solitary confinement.
“The Adjudication Captain sentenced Ms. Polanco to 20 days in punitive segregation (PSEG) (also known as solitary confinement), a form of discipline characterized by extended periods confined in a cell,” it says.
Despite the commonly understood dictionary definition of the term, the Department turned to the UN’s Nelson Mandela rules that apply to 22-hour confinement to explain its position. The department does not otherwise subscribe to the United Nation’s standards.
Solitary confinement is widely considered to have adverse psychological effects. A 2014 study conducted in New York City jails found that inmates who had spent time in solitary were significantly more likely to try to harm themselves in jail than those who had not.
Emotional stress can lead to seizures, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.
The Department has also emphasized that Polanco was assigned to a “restrictive housing unit” as if to distinguish it from the rest of women’s solitary confinement, or punitive segregation, aka PSEG, at Rikers.
But, as THE CITY previously reported, the report makes clear that all women’s solitary was together in one unit, in the same place, on the same schedule.
“Unlike the segregation units in the men’s facilities, at (the Rose M. Singer Center) there is no meaningful distinction between the programs offered to women in the RHU and women in traditional PSEG,” it says. “All the women confined in the Unit are offered the same number of hours outside their cells and the same services, including mental health programming.”
Health Record ‘Obstacles’
The report notes that the board’s probe “encountered several notable obstacles,” including going to court to obtain Polanco’s medical records from the city’s Correctional Health Services. The agency, which oversees medical care for all city detainees, contends that the privacy laws prohibit the release of records without a court order.
“This procedural hurdle resulted in significant delay in obtaining and reviewing Ms. Polanco’s medical information crucial to BOC’s investigation,” the report said.
Correctional Health Services gave the board “pharmacy computer printouts” detailing Polanco’s medication. But the printouts did not show whether the drugs were actually dispensed and if she took them, according to the review.
The board was also blocked from interviewing and Correctional Health Services staff and the agency’s internal post-mortem review was withheld, the report said. Several inmates also either declined to talk to board investigators or were unable to be located.
Earlier this month, the city’s Department of Investigation concluded that no city employee was criminally liable for Polanco’s death. The review did note that jail staff left Polanco alone for 47 minutes. Inmates in solitary are supposed to be checked every 15 minutes.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark also recently announced that she would not pursue any criminal charges tied to Polanco’s death.