The family of Layleen Polanco, who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, has agreed to settle a lawsuit against the city for $5.9 million — a record for an inmate’s death in a New York City jail, THE CITY has learned.
Polanco was 27 when she died from a seizure on June 7, 2019, after spending nine days in solitary confinement at Rikers’ Rose M. Singer Center, where she was being held on $500 bail.
The fate of the transgender woman, whom THE CITY revealed died in isolation, spurred local and national calls to ban solitary confinement, and inspired protesters who carried her image while chanting “Black Trans Lives Matter.”
“This settlement will allow Layleen’s family to move forward without enduring years of protracted litigation and reliving their trauma,” the family’s lawyer, David Shanies, said in a statement to THE CITY.
“This being the largest settlement in the city’s history for a death in jail should serve as a powerful statement that trans lives matter.”
Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, said the settlement was not a substitute for the firing of city correction officers involved in the chain of events that ended with the Dominican-born woman’s death.
“This is just the beginning of justice for my sister, this is not even close to being justice for her,” Brown said. ”Justice would be holding those people who had something to do with my sister’s death accountable for their actions.”
In a statement issued Sunday night, the city Law Department said: “The death of Ms. Polanco was an absolute tragedy and our thoughts remain with her family and loved ones. The city will continue to do everything it can to make reforms towards a correction system that is fundamentally safer, fairer and more humane.”
‘Right the Wrong’
Polanco, a member of the city ballroom scene’s House of Xtravaganza, was remembered by friends as a “beacon of joy,” even as her life was plagued by challenges — including, her sister said, unrelenting discrimination related to her being transgender.
Polanco’s casket, at her Yonkers funeral, was flanked by a rainbow banner bearing the word “HUMAN.”
At the time of her death, Polanco had been locked in what the city calls a “restrictive housing unit” — a form of so-called punitive segregation — that was not distinct from the rest of the women’s solitary unit. She was held there despite a seizure disorder that should have kept her out of isolation, THE CITY reported.
After initially denying that Polanco was in solitary, the de Blasio administration announced this summer that it would change solitary rules to explicitly exclude people with seizure conditions and certain other health problems, including asthma.
The mayor said the city will ultimately end the practice of solitary confinement, citing Polanco’s death as the catalyst.
“We have to right the wrong,” Mayor Bill de Blasio declared at a June news conference. “We can’t bring her back, but we can make change so that no one else goes through such a tragedy.”
The de Blasio administration also said it would discipline 17 uniformed jail staffers.
An investigation into Polanco’s death released in June by the city’s Board of Correction, which exercises independent oversight over local jails, noted that 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 into solitary confinement.
An autopsy last year by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner found that Polanco died from a seizure related to epilepsy.
Held on Misdemeanor
Polanco had been jailed in lieu of $500 bail for a 2017 arrest for misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges. An undercover cop picked her up at a West Side hotel, a criminal complaint shows.
She was sent to Manhattan’s human trafficking court, a “problem-solving” court that aims to refer people it deems victims of sex work to services instead of prosecuting them. But Polanco missed court dates and her case was never dismissed.
She was arrested again in April 2019 for allegedly assaulting a taxi driver. When Polanco was ordered released a few days later on the assault charges, the 2017 case kept her locked up.
Polanco believed she would be released from jail before long, her family said. She was placed in solitary after a fight with another inmate.
The Anti-Violence Project, which advocates on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said it would keep fighting for an immediate end to solitary confinement in Polanco’s name, as well as the firing of any correction officers involved in her death.
“Solitary confinement for all must be ended immediately and concrete steps must be taken to ensure the safety of all trans and gender nonconforming people incarcerated,” Beverly Tillery, executive director of AVP, said.
“Unfortunately, we know what happened to Layleen is reflective of thousands of transgender people who are regularly subjected to neglect and violence and stripped of their humanity within our nation’s jails and prisons.”
The $5.9 million payout, officials said, marks a record for a death in a city jail, surpassing the $5.75 million that went to the family of Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill man who was found naked and covered in his own waste after being locked for six days in a Rikers Island cell in 2013.
Last year, the city reached a $3.3 million settlement with the family of Kalief Browder, a teen who spent three years on Rikers Island after being accused of stealing a backpack. In 2015, two years after being released, he hanged himself at age 22.