Layleen Polanco, 27, had been arrested on April 13 and detained since April 16 on misdemeanor charges of assault and criminal possession of a controlled substance. Polanco, a transgender woman, was being held at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island, a facility that houses female detainees and sentenced inmates. On Friday afternoon, she was discovered unresponsive in her cell and later declared dead.
Her death has sparked an outpouring of anger from social activists and members of the transgender community, who view Polanco’s case as another example of discrimination and danger faced by transgender women of color.
“Ms. Polanco’s passing is a tragic reminder of the heightened risk and physical and emotional torture that transgender people — especially those from communities of color — face in the criminal legal system, particularly while in custody," the Legal Aid Society, which had represented Polanco, said in a statement on Monday. "Her heartbreaking and untimely death warrants a swift, complete, independent, and transparent investigation from the City. We join New Yorkers in demanding justice for Ms. Polanco, her family, and for her community.”
According to the New York City Department of Correction, an officer on a tour of the facility found Polanco unresponsive in her cell. Custodial staff first attempted to revive her using CPR and a defibrillator before a medical staff member arrived and continued their efforts. She was pronounced dead at 3:45 p.m.
“This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family," Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in a statement to The Washington Post. "We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority.”
Polanco’s cause of death has not yet been determined, but the DOC said it was not the result of violence or “foul play."
The New York City medical examiner’s office was investigating the death, spokeswoman Aja Worthy-Davis said.
But Polanco’s family members are not satisfied with the department’s response. They released a statement through their lawyer Sunday saying that “the city failed to protect Layleen, and now it is trying to sweep her death under the rug.”
“We will not allow it,” they said.
David Shanies, who is representing the family, including Polanco’s mother, Arecelis Cubilette, and sister, Melania Brown, said:
The family members declined to comment directly to The Post, but Shanies said that they had received scant information from DOC officials about the events leading to Polanco’s death.
“The family’s only agenda is to mourn the loss of their loved one and get answers as to how this could have happened,” Shanies said.
Brown has started a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $12,000 for Polanco’s funeral.
“At this moment we don’t have much information on what happened to my sister,” Brown wrote on the GoFundMe page. “All we know is that she got into a fight and got locked up and sent to Rikers she was there for a month and was due to come home the 13th of this month. We were notified yesterday that she was found dead in her cell with not much information. We will make sure her story is heard after we find out what happened. Please [help] us lay her to rest.”
Indya Moore, a model and star of the television series “Pose,” mourned Polanco’s loss on Twitter and helped publicize the case on social media in recent days. Moore says that Polanco was a member of the House of Xtravaganza, a prominent underground ballroom community in New York City.
The Anti-Violence Project, an activist group, announced that a vigil in Polanco’s honor will be held on Monday night outside a courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Shanies, the lawyer for Polanco’s family, said that it was organized independently but that some relatives planned to attend.