New York City has settled a lawsuit from the family of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who was found dead while in custody on Rikers Island in 2019, for $5.9 million.
Polanco was arrested in April 2019 on charges related to failing to complete a court-ordered diversion program for several misdemeanor offenses. Because she could not afford the $500 bail, she was placed in custody at Rikers. On June 7, 2019, she was found unresponsive in her cell and pronounced dead.
Polanco’s family later sued the city, arguing that prison officials did not provide proper accommodations, including medical care and safe housing, for Polanco — who suffered from epilepsy and reportedly had two seizures while in custody — which is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The lawsuit also claimed the city’s Department of Corrections violated her Fourteenth Amendment rights of due process and equal protection under the law.
At the time of her death, Polanco had been placed in solitary confinement for 20 days after becoming involved in a fight.
Officers were supposed to check on her, but her family claims that video footage from the prison shows that officers had failed to regularly check on her status, and that some guards, upon finding Polanco unresponsive, attempted to wake her for nearly 90 minutes before calling for medical assistance.
The Bronx District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges in Polanco’s death, further angering her family, who argued her death could have been prevented.
According to The City, the settlement of $5.9 million is a record for the death of an inmate in custody.
“This settlement will allow Layleen’s family to move forward without enduring years of protracted litigation and reliving their trauma,” David Shanies, the lawyer for Polanco’s family, said in a statement.
“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 holding those responsible for her sister’s death accountable.
While 17 uniformed staffers from the New York Department of Correction will face disciplinary action, as well as an internal investigation, none have been fired as of yet. Brown believes they should be.
“This is just the beginning of justice for my sister, this is not even close to being justice for her,” Brown said.
The city’s Law Department issued a statement calling Polanco’s death an “absolute tragedy.”
“The city will continue to do everything it can to make reforms towards a correction system that is fundamentally safer, fairer and more humane,” the statement read.
LGBTQ activists note that Polanco was also a victim of timing. Had she been arrested a year later, when New York’s recently enacted legislation eliminating cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies took effect, she would not have been held at Rikers and potentially could have received timely treatment for her seizures, reports CNN.
“The neglect and utter disregard for Layleen’s life by prison officials is reprehensible. 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, the executive director of the NYC Anti-Violence Project, said in a statement.
“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,” Tillery added.
“These acts of state violence have to stop and we are calling on our city and state officials to take action now to ensure accountability for Layleen’s tragic death, and to end the criminalization and disproportionate incarceration and abuse of transgender New Yorkers.”
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