On Monday afternoon, more than 600 people gathered in Foley Square in New York City to mourn Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, an Afro-Latinx transgender woman, and demand justice after she died in her cell in Rikers Island. Activists and family members expressed outrage over what they say is a lack of information around the circumstances of her death.
Cubilette-Polanco, also known as Layleen Xtravaganza, was being held in solitary confinement when she died, and her cause of death has not been determined yet.
She was arrested in April on misdemeanor assault charges, Bail was set at $500. Although a judge ordered her release on the assault charges, she was still being held for low-level drug charges and prostitution charges from 2017, according to the Gothamist. She was in a unit for transgender women before being placed in solitary following a fight.
According to ABC News, her family said she suffered from an acute medical condition and that considering her fragile health, she should have been placed in supervised detention.
Relatives also said the Department of Corrections and medical examiner misgendered her when referring to her after she died.
Monday’s event was hosted by the New York City Anti-Violence Project and co-sponsored by over 30 organizations, including the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, Translatina Network, Global Action Project, Lambda Legal, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Cubilette-Polanco’s mother, Arecelis Polanco, her sister, Melania Brown, and her brother, Salomon Cubilette, attended the rally and wore LGBTQ Pride rainbows.
“We ask for justice for Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a young, beautiful 27 year-old transgender woman who died in Rikers Island, a place that should not be to begin with,” Cecelia Gentilli, who consults for GMHC, an organization focused on HIV/AIDS prevention, care and advocacy, said at the rally. “We don’t need Rikers Island. Close that shit down!”
While she spoke, people start chanting, “Black trans lives matter!”
Cubilette-Polanco’s family wrote in a statement to media that New York City’s recent monument to honor trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — two of the most prominent figures in the 1969 Stonewall Uprising — stands in stark contrast with their family member’s death in solitary.
“Just days ago, Mayor de Blasio dedicated a monument to pioneering transgender activists, telling the trans community that ‘we are sending a clear message: We see you … and we will protect you.’ The city failed to protect Layleen, and now it is trying to sweep her death under the rug. We will not allow it,” the family said.
At the rally, Gentilli said about the deplorable conditions Cubilette-Polanco endured during her imprisonment in an isolated cell at Rikers Island.
“I don’t wish that on my worst enemy. They knew Layleen had medical issues and they left her unmonitored in solitary confinement,” she said.
“This city has failed Layleen. This city has failed a family and they need information. They need to know what the fuck happened to their daughter. And we need to know that our community cannot continue to be sent to Rikers Island. … She was in there for a simple misdemeanor. We need to change the laws of this city that continue to send black and brown people to that horrible place called Rikers Island.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) has a 10-year plan to close Rikers and replace it with smaller borough-based facilities. The proposal is now in the approval process with the City Planning Commission.
Homer Venters, former chief medical officer and assistant commissioner of Correctional Health Services for the NYC Health and Hospital System, and author of Life and Death in Rikes Island, told ThinkProgress that although the use of solitary has fallen dramatically at Rikers, it’s still being used. And it doesn’t work.
“It’s not evidence-based. People who experienced solitary aren’t any less likely to be involved in violent infractions or any problems after and we know the way solitary is administered harms people … There is this gross racial disparity in how it’s used, so while there is much less, and that’s good, this case exemplifies how this still presents an inhumane condition to people that harms them and is used for things we have better solutions for,” said Venters.
“Two people may get into a fight, and there are lots of ways to handle that that don’t involve locking up one or both of them in a cell,” he said.
Cubilette-Polanco’s death marks yet another untimely death for the trans community and black trans women. In 2019, at least eight transgender people have been fatally shot or killed by other means, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and they were all black trans women.
In May, a 23-year-old black transgender woman, Muhlaysia Booker, was shot and killed in the street, where she was found by Dallas police. Only a few weeks earlier, she was brutally attacked by a group of men in a parking lot. Although the exact circumstances of her death are unclear and the Department of Corrections said it was “not the result of violence or foul play,” activists say her death is an example of the inherent violence of the criminal justice system, particularly toward trans women of color.
Cubilette-Polanco’s experiences and her death at a young age are also common for many trans people and trans women of color in particular.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 40% of all respondents said they interacted with the police or other law enforcement within the past year. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said that they experienced misgendering, physical attacks, and verbal harassment when the cops they interacted with thought or knew they were trans. U.S. Justice Department statistics released in 2014 show that 34% of transgender people reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual violence while incarcerated.
Despite the Transgender Housing Unit being a positive step forward for Rikers, it still has a number of problems.
A 2018 New York City Board of Corrections report assessing its Transgender Housing Unit found that there is not “an effective system for managing applications and placements into the THU” and that people in THU at the time said they were not informed of its existence at intake but only learned through word of mouth with others in custody.
The report also cites a lack of specialized training for staff, who asked people’s gender at intake and then misgendered people who disclosed their gender to them. The document found that an electronic inmate management system does not designate a person’s gender identity based on self-reporting. It also determined that there is “no effective mechanism to address conflict between people in the unit.”
“We know trans detainees face [an] incredibly high risk of physical and sexual assault in jail and so we know that simply waving a wand over a housing area for them is obviously not sufficient,” Venters said.
“I still think that while it’s important that we as a city while place emphasis on keeping people out of jail, and there’s a lot more to do, we still have not adequately owned up to the real risks of being incarcerated.”
He said that when he ran the Correctional Health Services, they would assess deaths behind bars that were attributable to systems errors or a result of actions by security, health staff, or other individuals.
“We called them jail-attributable deaths. Well, that shouldn’t be hidden. This is a public institution so everyone should know, and a systems error or individual errors — when there are problems behind bars that contribute to someone’s death or sexual abuse or physical abuse — the organizations and institutions should be accountable to the public.”
Venters added, referring to the administrative reasons that kept her in jail, “It is heartbreaking to see someone who shouldn’t have been in jail, die in jail.”