Elizabeth Warren brings attention to death of trans woman at Rikers, calling solitary ‘inhumane’

Her campaign is drawing renewed attention to her death to demand better from the justice system.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 30: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 30: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) shared a story on Thursday about Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, an Afro-Latinx trans woman who died at Rikers Island in New York City in June, coupling it with a call for sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system. Her interest in the tragic story may signal to advocates for LGBTQ equality that she is committed to acknowledging the effects of the criminal justice system on trans people’s lives.

Warren tweeted on Thursday, “Let’s be clear: Layleen Cubilette-Polanco should still be alive. Solitary confinement is cruel and inhumane. We must end this practice, enforce strict standards for medical care, and provide extra layers of protection for LGBTQ+ people.”

Cubilette-Polanco was arrested in April on misdemeanor assault charges, and bail was set at $500. A judge ordered her release on those charges, but she was still being held for low-level drug charges and prostitution charges from two years prior. She was placed in a unit for trans women, where she was involved in a fight and subsequently relocated to a restrictive housing unit, which many have referred to as solitary confinement. Her family said she could not afford to pay bail. She died at Rikers as a result of a medical condition that causes seizures, according to Chief Medical Examiner the City of New York, Dr. Barbara Sampson. 

Shortly after her death, 600 people gathered in Foley Square in New York, chanting “Black trans lives matter!”

Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, released a statement to media this week following the official news of Cubilette-Polanco’s cause of death. “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,” said Luongo. “We demand utmost transparency and rigor in the investigation of the correctional and medical policies and decisions surrounding her treatment and her placement in isolation.”


Lawyers from David B. Shaines Law Office, who represent her family, have said that Cubilette-Polanco experienced multiple seizures at Rikers and that the Department of Corrections knew about her epilepsy. They say she should have never placed in “punitive segregation,” and that it “became her death warrant.”

There is some evidence that the staff have not handled conflict within the trans women’s unit well, which is perhaps the reason why she was placed in the restrictive housing unit to begin with. A 2018 New York City Board of Corrections report assessing its Transgender Housing Unit determined that there is “no effective mechanism to address conflict between people in the unit.” There were many other criticisms of the unit, including poor training of staff on how to serve transgender people in the unit.

Cubilette-Polanco’s treatment by the criminal justice system is a case study in how it disproportionately and negatively impacts many vulnerable populations — trans women, people of color, and low-income people and their families who can’t afford bail. By tweeting about her story and potential reforms, Warren is bringing attention to those criticisms. But she is also notably filling in the gaps of some of her own proposed policies to improve the well-being of LGBTQ people.


In May, NewNowNext reported on Warren’s proposals and policies designed to advance LGBTQ rights. That included reversing Donald Trump’s military trans ban, a vow to “protect civil rights for transgender people,” outlawing conversion therapy, reversing the State Department’s denial of family visas to same-sex domestic partners of diplomats, and ending discrimination against queer men who are currently barred from donating blood. She also said she supports the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in housing, employment, education, federal programs, jury service, public accommodations, and credit and lending. Warren added that she’d implement the Refund Equality Act she co-sponsored in 2017, which would mean that same-sex couples married in states before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality could amend amend past tax returns, which would allow them to get IRS refunds.

Although Warren acknowledged many important barriers for LGBTQ people, one of the holes in her plan for LGBTQ equality was in the criminal justice system. Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, asked how she would acknowledge the struggles of trans people of color. “What about prisons, sex work?” he asked.

Although we don’t know all of the circumstances of Cubilette-Polanco’s life, her experience in the criminal justice system and protracted stay and eventual segregation within Rikers was likely compounded for many reasons. She was poor and couldn’t afford bail. She felt the effects of the criminalization of sex work. Sex workers are currently fighting for decriminalization, and one of their chief arguments is that it will make sex workers and those whom police profile as sex workers — who are often trans women of color — much safer. As the National Center for Transgender Equality explained in a 2015 report on sex work:

Transgender people overall experience high levels of discrimination in every area of life, as well as high levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, negative interactions with police, incarceration, and violent victimization. As a result, many transgender people participate in the sex trade in order to earn income or as an alternative to relying on homeless shelters and food banks. The criminalizing and stigmatizing of sex work in the United States can worsen the discrimination and marginalization that transgender people already face in society.

Warren has not fully answered Strangio’s question about policies supporting trans people of color, but her focus on Cubilette-Polanco’s story is another example of her taking steps to show her support of trans people, particularly some of the most marginalized in the trans community. In January, for instance, ThinkProgress pressed Warren on her 2012 remark that transition-related surgeries for incarcerated trans people was not a “good use of taxpayer dollars.”


Warren’s presidential exploratory committee said in a statement, “Senator Warren supports access to medically necessary services, including transition-related surgeries,” claimed an unnamed spokesperson for her 2020 exploratory committee. “This includes procedures taking place at the VA, in the military, or at correctional facilities.”

In another show of support for transgender and nonbinary Americans, Warren recently updated her Twitter bio to include her pronouns, and at the Iowa City presidential debate, staffers’ nametags included pronouns for their gender. During the previous presidential debate held in June, she used the word “Latinx” instead of “Latino” to be inclusive of all genders. Those may seem like small gestures, but they nevertheless show her support of transgender and nonbinary people.

“I think of it this way. Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top … It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons but not for the African Americans and Latinx who are torn apart and whose lives are destroyed,” she said.