Activists at City Hall demand answers in death of Layleen Polanco

Layleen Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, speaks at a rally in front of City Hall Wednesday.  Eagle  photo by Phineas Rueckert.

Layleen Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, speaks at a rally in front of City Hall Wednesday. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert.

By Phineas Rueckert 

Nineteen days after Layleen Polanco, an Afro-Latinx trans woman, was found dead at Rikers Island, family members and advocates remain in the dark about how she died — and say the city and the Department of Correction have not done enough to investigate the case. 

Advocates from a number of groups, including the New York Anti-Violence Project, Sylvia Rivera Law Project and VOCAL-NY, gathered outside of City Hall Wednesday to demand answers. 

“It’s been 19 days now since Layleen Polanco was found dead in her cell at Rikers and we’ve had no action from the city,” said Audacia Ray, a spokesperson for AVP. “We know there’s an investigation happening, but the city is not being transparent with her family about what’s going on. They need to expedite the autopsy results so the family knows what happened to her in the final days and hours at Rikers.” 

David Shanies, the lawyer representing Polanco’s family, said corrections officers walked past Polanco as she lay dying, or already dead, and remarked that “she must be sleeping.” He said that the family was prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit and that they would not wait for the results of the Chief Medical Examiner’s autopsy report, which could take as many as 12 weeks. 

Polanco was arrested for allegedly attempting to bite a cab driver and had been held on $500 bail, The City reported. 

“We have enough information now to move forward [on a lawsuit],’ Davies told reporters before the event. “We’ve gotten nowhere from trying to get answers from our elected officials and the family doesn’t have time to wait for those answers.” 

Rally speakers included Polanco’s sister Melania.

“She was left like she was roadkill,” Melania said. “We are the voice they thought they took from her, and Rikers, I’m coming [for you].” 

On Wednesday, the Anti-Violence Project also sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio demanding that a number of measures be taken on a state and local level to protect trans communities. The letter, drafted by AVP and signed by 26 community organizations, called for expediting Polanco’s autopsy results; passing a local law to review DOC policies on separating transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary and intersex people who are incarcerated; passing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which would eliminate solitary confinement in New York State; and decriminalizing sex work, among other reforms. 

After the news of Polanco’s death broke, Corrections emptied the solitary confinement unit in the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island, but Ray, from AVP, said that it was not enough. 

“It makes some difference, but those jails are not safe for anyone and especially for Black and Latinx trans women,” she said. “Rosie’s and Rikers in general need to be closed and we can’t be building more jails.”

The Department of Correction has said that the cause of death was not violent, and that there was no indication of foul play.

“This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family. We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority,” DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in a statement earlier this month.