Metro Weekly

Family of transgender woman who died at Rikers Island moving forward with lawsuit against New York City

Layleen Polanco's family alleges prison officials didn't ensure she received proper medical care for her epilepsy

Layleen Polanco – Photo: Facebook.

The family of a transgender woman who died at Rikers Island earlier this summer plans to move forward with a lawsuit against New York City.

Layleen Polanco, 27, of New York, was arrested on April 13 and was detained on misdemeanor charges of assault and criminal possession of a controlled substance.

She was being held at the Rose M. Singer Center, a facility for female detainees and inmates, and during her stay there, Palanco was involved in a fight and placed in solitary confinement for 20 days.

Polanco’s family claims in its lawsuit that prison officials were aware that she suffered from epilepsy and schizophrenia, and had been treated for both while in custody. Polanco had been prescribed an anti-seizure medication, to be taken twice daily.

While in custody, she had multiple seizures in the months leading up to her death. During that time, she suffered a head injury, but did not receive treatment for it.

The family alleges that on June 7, around 1 p.m., correction officers went to Polanco’s cell and knocked, but she was unresponsive, and they never checked to see if she may have needed medical attention, despite the risks associated with her health condition.

Two hours later, other officers returned to the cell to find Polanco unresponsive. 

Custodial staff attempted to revive Polanco using CPR and a defibrillator before a medical staff member arrived and continued trying to revive her.

She never regained consciousness, and was pronounced dead. Results from an autopsy later determined that Polanco had died from complications due to an epileptic condition.

Polanco’s mother filed a civil suit against the city and several prison officials, claiming that staff did not provide proper accommodations for her disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, medical care, or safe housing.

The lawsuit also accuses the city and staffers for the Department of Corrections of violating Polanco’s Fourteenth Amendment rights of due process and equal protection under the law, accusing prison officials of being “deliberately indifferent to a known and substantial risk of serious injury to her.”

Polanco’s death sparked protests by members of the LGBTQ community who argue that she was neglected and treated differently from other patients because of her gender identity.

Last Friday, the city argued in court that the case should be suspended and the family prevented from moving forward with their lawsuit until the city can conduct a full investigation into her death — a motion that was denied by a judge.

The parties will next appear in court for a hearing on Dec. 6.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at

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