An emergency bail fund for transgender inmates has been established in the name of Layleen Polanco — a trans woman who died in solitary confinement after she was unable to post a $500 bond. Polanco’s death garnered national headlines earlier this year, with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez tweeting that her treatment amounted to “torture.”
Polanco was incarcerated at Rikers Island, the infamous New York prison with a long reputation for shocking violence, rape, and corruption. She was placed into solitary confinement after a fight with another inmate, but according to a lawsuit filed by her mother, Polanco had health issues and should never have been left alone for as long as she was. Following the news of her death, advocates held protests demanding accountability.
Martin Kaminer, 52-year-old IT professional and father of two, tells the New York-based nonprofit news outlet The City that he felt spurred to action after reading headlines of Polanco’s tragic death. He reached out to everyone he knew, and eventually connected with renowned civil rights attorney Chase Strangio at the ACLU. Working with Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, they established The Emergency Release Fund to help trans people escape incarceration and get back on their feet.
Trans people are disproportionately victimized by the bail bond system, often because they lack the family support necessary to raise money. Donations to The Emergency Release Fund act as a sort of surrogate family, drawing on the resources of the LGBTQ+ community and allies to help those in need, according to the organizers.
So far, the fund has raised over $10,000 and has freed six transgender inmates. The fund also trains volunteers to take money to jails and finalize paperwork, a lengthy and complicated process. While other bail funding groups exist in New York, this one is unique in helping people who have missed court dates. Prior to her death, Polanco had missed court dates and was denied assistance by another fund.
The criminal justice system often falls short when it comes to protecting trans people or treating them fairly. According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, 57 percent of trans people are afraid to go to police. When incarcerated, the survey found that trans people are 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by inmates and five times more likely to be sexually assaulted by staff.
Trans inmates are also often denied medical care, a practice supported by the office of presidential candidate Kamala Harris before she more recently acknowledged that was a mistake.
While New York’s Correction Department has had special housing for trans women since 2015, it has failed to take full advantage of the facility. Strangio described at least a dozen inmates currently experiencing abuse because they are being held in the general population.
Polanco’s death has galvanized action to close Rikers and end solitary confinement.
“No human being should be tortured by or in the United States,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted as the news spread. “Layleen Polanco was, and now she’s gone — all for $500 bail + low lvl offense.”
Rikers is in Ocasio-Cortez’s district, and she’s often spoken out against the jail. “A prison sentence is not a license for gov torture and human rights violations. That‘s what solitary confinement is,” she wrote in response to news that Trump collaborator Paul Manafort would be held in solitary.
Though Rikers may be home to some of the country’s most horrifying prison abuses, it’s far from the only facility with problems. Just this week, the ACLU reported the case of Jena Faith, a military veteran who was improperly placed in a men’s jail in Steuben County. There, she was harassed by inmates and guards, and denied medical care. Stories like these are all too common throughout the prison system nationwide.