The mother of Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latinx transgender woman who died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island June 7, is suing New York City for what advocates for Cubilette-Polanco say was a preventable death.
Her mother, Arecelis Polanco, filed a lawsuit Monday alleging that the city’s Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services personnel “failed to provide [Cubilette-Polanco] with safe housing, adequate medical care, and proper accommodation for her disabilities,” which led to her death.
Advocates say Cubilette-Polanco’s case serves as another example where the criminal justice system has only served to cause serious harm to people from marginalized communities. “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 issued shortly after her death. “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.”
At the time of her death, the Dominican Republic native was being held in solitary confinement at Rose M. Singer Center, a women's facility on the island, in a specialized unit for transgender women. Cubilette-Polanco, known as Layleen Xtravaganza, a fixture in New York City’s ballroom scene, was arrested in April for allegedly biting a cab driver, and was being held at Rikers on a $500 bail related to a prior charge, The City reported. 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 at all.
The city’s medical examiner determined Cubilette-Polanco died as a result of complications with epilepsy. Arecelis’ lawsuit alleges that officials at Rikers were aware that her daughter suffered from both epilepsy and schizophrenia, conditions that made it dangerous for her to be placed in solitary confinement. Officials placed Cubilette-Polanco in solitary confinement, where she was forced to stay in lockdown for 17 hours a day, following a fight in jail.
“People incarcerated at Rikers are routinely denied necessary medical care and proper supervision, including people who, like Layleen, have conditions presenting a high risk of death or serious bodily injury,” the lawsuit states. It also includes that Layleen was hospitalized for “one or more of her medical conditions” for roughly eight days just weeks before she was found unresponsive in her cell. According to the lawsuit, Cubilette-Polanco had multiple seizures while in custody in the months before her death.
In 2015, the New York City Board of Correction, which provides oversight for New York City’s jails, created a rule granting medical staff authority to exclude individuals from punitive segregation if solitary confinement “would pose a serious threat to an inmate’s physical or mental health.” Arecelis’ lawsuit alleges that Cubilette-Polanco was placed in solitary confinement on May 30 and was regularly was left alone in her cell for many hours at a time.
The lawsuit continues, alleging that two correction officers knocked on Cubilette-Polanco’s cell door at 1 p.m. on June 7, to no response, but took no action, and when they checked again around 3 p.m., she was found unresponsive. “She had been dead so long that first responders found her body cold to the touch,” the lawsuit states.
Arecelis is suing the City of New York and 28 other defendants, all Department of Correction and city officials or jail staff, for unspecified damages.
"Our thoughts remain with Layleen Polanco’s, family, friends, and community. Her death is particularly painful given the long and tragic history of injustice toward the transgender community, which we will not stand for," Avery Cohen, Mayor Bill de Blasio's deputy press secretary, said on behalf of the city, in response to a request for comment from Refinery29. "Any loss of life in our custody is unacceptable, and we must continue our work towards enacting long- term criminal justice reform.” Cohen did not have any comment in regards to the charges in the suit.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the NYC Department of Correction did not respond.