Activists, family members mourn death of trans woman at Rikers Island

Layleen Polanco died on Rikers Island on June 8. Photo via GoFundMe.

Layleen Polanco died on Rikers Island on June 8. Photo via GoFundMe.

By Phineas Rueckert

Family members expected Layleen Polanco to come home in less than a week. She never did.

Polanco, a 27-year-old trans Afro-Latinx woman, was found dead in her cell at Rikers Island Friday afternoon. The Department of Correction said that the cause of death was not violent, and that there was no indication of foul play. But family members and activists are calling for an investigation into the murky circumstances.

“We want a full investigation; we want answers,” said Eliel Cruz, spokesperson for the Anti-Violence Project, one of the organizations hosting a rally in support of Polanco’s family Monday evening. “What we do know is that Layleen should be alive. We do know that the state did not take care of her and we know that Rikers should be closed because it has only been used to enact violence against our community again and again.”

Polanco is the 10th trans woman to have died in 2019 nationwide, activists say. She is also the 10th person to die on Rikers Island since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2013, said Brandon Holmes, an activist with the Close Rikers campaign.

“This is a wake up call to everyone who believes that we can wait to close Rikers,” Holmes told the Eagle. “What we really want to see is that people acknowledge this as a call to address this long-standing human rights crisis. Mass incarceration is a human rights crisis and it’s been happening at Rikers Island for more than 80 years.”

On June 4, Close Rikers hosted a vigil at the entrance to Rikers Bridge for individuals who have been killed at the jail.

Polanco had been detained at Rikers since April 16 on an alleged misdemeanor assault charge, according to police records, and was scheduled to appear in court on June 18. She had been held in a specialty unit created in 2014 to house trans inmates, which is staffed by officers who have received training from the ACLU and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

“NYC’s Department of Corrections established a trans housing unit to reduce violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people at Rikers,” activists wrote in the Facebook event page set up in advance of Monday’s rally. “But ‘better’ incarceration is still incarceration, and trans people are deeply unsafe in this system.”

According to Lambda Legal, nearly one in two black trans people have spent time in jail or prison. More than 60 percent of the time, trans individuals are housed in single-sex units that do not correspond with their gender identity. For trans women, this number is even higher — 70 percent.   

Holmes, from the Close Rikers campaign, said that in addition to investigating the DOC’s practices, more work would have to be done to reform policing outside of jails and prisons.

“If we’re really going to talk about this, it’s not just about what’s happening in our jails, but what’s happening in our streets too,” such as broken windows policing and the criminalization of sex work, which disproportionately target vulnerable communities, he said.  

The DOC, for its part, urged against speculation on the cause of Polanco’s death.

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