Layleen Polanco’s autopsy report raises more questions than it answers, family members of the deceased woman say.
Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latina trans woman, was found dead in her cell at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex on June 7, where she had been held for nearly two months on $500 bail stemming from two misdemeanor charges. She had been placed in solitary confinement at the time of her death.
The medical examiner’s autopsy report released Tuesday confirms what family and activists have been saying since June — that Polanco died from complications of her epilepsy. The disorder put her at serious risk for life-threatening seizures, which Rikers staff were well aware of when they placed her in solitary, Polanco’s family says.
“Today we also received documentary confirmation that Layleen’s epilepsy was well known to [the Department of Corrections], and she suffered multiple seizures on Rikers,” lawyers for Polanco’s family said on Tuesday, per the New York Daily News. “On [May 30], a jail doctor approved her placement in punitive segregation, despite her epilepsy. That became her death warrant.”
A beloved figure in New York’s ballroom community and a member of the House of Xtravaganza, Polanco, also known as Layleen Xtravaganza, might not have died if she hadn’t been left unmonitored in solitary confinement. She might not have died if she hadn’t been held at Rikers for months on a $500 bail she couldn’t afford to pay — or if she had been charged one year later, when New York will no longer use cash bail for low-level offenses. There are many things that remain unclear about Polanco’s death, but the fact that New York’s criminal justice system created a situation where Polanco could die is not one of them.
“Layleen Polanco’s death is an absolute tragedy, and her passing further underscores the dangers of solitary confinement, which isolates already medically fragile people from observation and care,” Tina Luongo of the Legal Aid Society told Pix11. “We demand the utmost transparency and rigor in the investigation of the correctional and medical policies and decisions surrounding her treatment and her placement in isolation.”
“Layleen’s passing demands that Mayor Bill de Blasio prioritize the immediate closing of Rikers Island,” Luongo continued. “He must also end his Administration’s punitive solitary confinement policy, which has already claimed the lives of too many New Yorkers.”