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$5.9 Million Settlement in Death of Transgender Prisoner at New York’s Rikers Island

Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, 27, a member of the prominent drag-scene ballroom group House of Xtravaganza, was arrested on misdemeanor prostitution and drug possession charges in 2017. She was sent to a diversion court, but missed court dates, resulting in a bench warrant being issued for her arrest. In 2019, she was arrested for assaulting a taxi driver.

Her alleged behavior motivated arresting officers to take Polanco to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. She was admitted and held for three days, and prescribed the anti-seizure medication Keppra upon discharge. She was taken to arraignment where a judge ordered her released on the assault charge. But he served the outstanding bench warrant and set bail at $501, an amount she could not afford.

Polanco was booked into RMSC, where she told staff she had a seizure disorder. She was placed in one of RMSC’s two Transgender Housing Unit (THU) dorms. Two weeks later, she suffered a seizure in the middle of the night and was taken to the medical clinic. Two days after the seizure, she got into an “interpersonal conflict” with another prisoner and was transferred to the second THU dorm. Two days later, she suffered another seizure at night and was again taken to the clinic.

A couple of days later, Polanco was at the clinic and had a physical altercation with a prisoner from her former THU dorm. She was charged with a disciplinary offense. Eight days later, on the day of her disciplinary hearing, she got into a fight with another prisoner. Staff referred her to Mental Health Services, noting she was “showing radical changes in behavior” and other signs of mental illness. She was transferred to a cellblock normally used to hold new admissions.

The next day, Polanco refused to take her medication. She rolled on the floor, talked to herself and made growling sounds. She was given another mental health referral and eventually taken to Elmhurst Hospital, where she was kept in the psychiatric prison ward for eight days.

Upon her return to RMSC, Polanco was placed in the new arrivals cellblock while staff tried to secure permission to place her in punitive segregation to serve the sentence for the disciplinary infraction. A psychiatrist refused to authorize the placement, citing her history of seizures. But five days later, a different mental health clinician approved the transfer.

Eight days after she arrived at the Restrictive Housing Unit, Polanco was found face-down in her bed and unresponsive. She was soon pronounced dead.

An autopsy determined epileptic seizure as the cause of death.

Despite the requirement that staff monitor prisoners every 15 minutes, the last time Polanco was definitively seen alive was nearly three hours before she was found unresponsive in her bunk. Video recordings showed several staff members stopping at her cell and sometimes looking in for a few seconds, but gaps of 57 minutes, 47 minutes, and 41 minutes went by when she was not monitored.

On June 10, 2019, hundreds gathered in Foley Square, shouting “Black Trans Lives Matter” to protest the conditions at Rikers Island that led to Polanco’s death.

The city’s Board of Corrections investigated, publishing a scathing report on June 23, 2020, that found numerous faulty policies and violations of policies contributed to her death, including a policy of segregating trans women from other women in the city’s jails that left guards with no where else to put Polanco.

The report noted that medical staff failed to pass on information about Polanco’s seizure disorder so that THU staff at RMSC knew nothing about it. Had they known, given the policy of segregating trans women, they might have sent her to a medical unit instead of solitary.

The report also faulted the process by which prisoners with mental and medical issues are supposed to be excluded from punitive segregation. Further, staff had failed to perform routine wellness checks and had even misused an Observation Aide by having the aide prepare and deliver meals.

The district attorney declined to prosecute any staff in connection with Polanco’s death. But in June 2020, the city announced that disciplinary action would be taken against 17 jail staff members. Three guards and a captain were immediately suspended without pay, awaiting the outcome of the disciplinary process.

After Polanco’s death, the administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) first tried to deny she had been in solitary confinement when she died. De Blasio then reversed course and announced a ban on placing prisoners with seizure disorders or certain other medical conditions in punitive segregation. He also formed a working group to develop a plan to end the use of solitary confinement.

“We can’t bring her back,” the mayor said at a June 2020 news conference, “but we can make changes so that no one else goes through such a tragedy.”

From 2017 to 2019, the number of city inmates in solitary confinement held steady at about 1,700 on any given day, even as the overall jail population dropped significantly, from about 46,100 to 31,500.

But without the ability “to physically separate inmates responsible for jail violence,” Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio, Jr., wondered, “How can anyone expect jail violence to decrease?” He sat on the mayor’s working group that was drafting recommendations to end the practice but asked that his name be removed from any final report that was issued because he strongly opposed ending the use of solitary.

Aided by attorney David Shanies, Polanco’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that the city agreed to settle for $5.9 million. Family members continue to press for the firing of the 17 RMSC staff members. See: Polanco v. City of New York, Case No. 1:19-cv-04623 (DLI) (SJB), U.S.D.C. (E.D.N.Y.).

The settlement surpasses the previous record amount of $5.75 million awarded in 2016 to the family of Bradley Ballard, a 39-year-old Rikers Island prisoner who also died in a solitary confinement cell in 2013 after spending six days there without clothing, running water or medication he had been prescribed for diabetes and schizophrenia (See PLN, Jan. 2017, p.54). 

 

Related legal case

Polanco v. City of New York