Transgender woman’s death spurs new task force to look into NYC jail system

Family, friends and actvists rallying for Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, in June.  Eagle  photo by Phineas Rueckert

Family, friends and actvists rallying for Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, in June. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

By Victoria Merlino

Four months after a transgender woman was found dead in her cell on Rikers Island, a new task force will look at the issues faced by transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary and/or intersex people in the New York City jail system. 

The Board of Correction announced on Tuesday that the task force will consist of leading experts, including those with lived experiences, from the city’s government and the community. The task force will make recommendations on issues such as medical and mental health treatment, training in gender-affirming practices, housing and targeted programming and resources for TGNCNBI people in jails. 

The death of Layleen Polanco, who suffered complications from epilepsy and was found dead in solitary confinement on Rikers on June 7, spurred activists to demand that the city and state revise its practices around how they treat transgender people in custody. Polanco, 27, was being held on $500 bail. 

Manhattan Councilmember Helen Rosenthal proposed the creation of the task force in June shortly after Polanco’s death, and it was passed in the same month. 

"I introduced legislation mandating this task force because New York City should be a leader when it comes to upholding the dignity of TGNCNBI incarcerated people,” Rosenthal said in a statement. 

“Nationwide and here in New York, TGNCNBI people have been overpoliced and over-incarcerated. They are often misgendered, denied appropriate healthcare, placed in unsafe housing conditions, and suffer sexual abuse at disproportionate rates. I am proud to join with the Board of Correction, City agencies, and community advocates in this critical step toward better protecting trans people in our custody and ensuring that tragedies like the death of Layleen Polanco never happen again,” she continued.

Those in the task force include members of the Legal Aid Society, the Anti-Violence Project, which sent Mayor Bill de Blasio a letter making recommendations to help TGNCNBI people in jails in June, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence and the New York City Commission on Human Rights, among other organizations. 

“There is an urgent need for the vision and oversight in protecting transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary and intersex people held in our City jails,” Legal Aid Society Prisoner Rights’ Project Director Mary Lynne Werlwas said in a statement. “Incarceration poses tremendous risks to these individuals, and for too long the jails have looked the other way.”