On Monday night, around 600 activists attended a rally to demand justice for Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latinx transgender woman who was found unresponsive in her jail cell at Rikers Island on Friday, June 7.
Polanco, a fixture in New York City’s ballroom scene and a member of the historic House of Xtravaganza, was being held in solitary confinement at the Rose M. Singer Center, a women's facility on the island, in a specialized unit for transgender women, at the time of her death.
The cause of death is yet to be determined, per the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office. The corrections department has stated that it plans to investigate the incident and would release information as soon as possible.
At the rally in Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, Polanco's family, friends, and supporters led chants like “not one more” and “trans injustice has got to go.”
“The city has failed Layleen,” Cecilia Gentili, an advocate for transgender and sex workers’ rights, said at the start of the rally. “The city has failed her family. They need to know what the fuck happened.”
The Dominican Republic native was originally detained in 2017 on a $500 bail for misdemeanor prostitution and low-level drug possession charges. According to The City, Polanco was arrested by an undercover cop in August 2017 after allegedly agreeing to perform oral sex in exchange for money and for being in possession of a crack pipe. Her case was transferred to Manhattan’s human trafficking court, where she failed to appear on more than one occasion, leading to a warrant for her arrest.
Polanco was arrested again this April, allegedly for biting a cab driver. Bail was set at $500. She remained in jail and was ordered to be released for the recent assault case, but her previous $500 bail for the prostitution and drug charges remained, so Polanco stayed in jail.
New York state recently passed cash bail reform, meaning that if Polanco had been arrested after January 2020 instead of in April, she would not have been held in jail.
After she took part in a fight in jail, officials placed Polanco in solitary confinement, where she was forced to stay on lockdown for 17 hours a day. Her representatives stated on Monday night that Rikers officials were allegedly aware that Polanco suffered from a serious medical condition that caused seizures.
“At the time of her death, Polanco was caught up in the violent bureaucracy of New York’s criminal legal system,” according to a news release from the Anti-Violence Project. “Polanco was being held due to a few missed court dates as part of the services she was mandated to in an alternative-to-incarceration program.”
David Shanies, a lawyer representing the family, said that he is “still gathering facts” about the case. “Under the bail-reform laws, Layleen would not have been incarcerated at all, so there are legitimate questions about why the [Manhattan] district attorney [Cyrus Vance, Jr.] is continuing to seek bail on low-level misdemeanor cases,” he said in a phone interview with Refinery29. “In light of the law that just passed, why would they continue a practice that the legislators and the governor clearly think should be outlawed up until the last possible moment?”
He also questioned why Polanco, who suffered from seizures, was placed in solitary confinement. “It’s very well-known that solitary confinement should be used very sparingly in circumstances when the person has known vulnerabilities such as a medical disorder or psychiatric disorders, both of which we believe were present in this case, so the family has many questions about why Layleen was left alone in a cell to die,” he said.
Shanies said that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office has set up a call with Polanco’s family for Tuesday afternoon.
Transgender women, particularly trans women of color, face disproportionately high levels of violence in comparison to the rest of the population, researchers say. Polanco is the 10th Black trans woman to reportedly die since the start of 2019.
Many groups have galvanized behind Polanco’s death, from those who advocate for the closure of Rikers Island to those fighting to decriminalize sex work. Monday's rally was hosted by the Anti-Violence Project, a New York City-based nonprofit that empowers LGBTQ+ and HIV-affected communities to end violence through organizing and education, and co-sponsored by organizations including Lambda Legal, Make the Road New York, DecrimNY, and No New Jails.
“We won’t back down and rest in peace no more,” Pose star Indya Moore, a fellow House of Xtravaganza member, said at the end of the rally. Moore began by listing the names of several Black and Brown trans women who have been killed in the past several months, including Muhlaysia Booker and Chynal Lindsey, who were both recently murdered in Dallas.
Polanco’s family, including her sister Melania Brown, her mother Arecelis Polanco, and her brother Salomon Cubilette, were in attendance at the rally, along with many other family members, House of Xtravaganza members, and close friends.
Her sister organized a fundraiser to help with funeral costs, which met its $9,000 goal within the first two days. Polanco’s funeral service will be held on Saturday in Yonkers. Her family is asking that attendees wear bright colors, rather than black or white.
"I just want justice for her," Brown said at the rally. "I’m trying to use my pain as my fuel to keep going."