Trans woman dies while incarcerated in Riker Island jail

This June 27 year-old Layleen Polanco was found dead in her cell at the New York City jail Rikers. Despite medical warnings the officials at Rikers prison kept Polanco in solitary confinement where she died on the ninth day. Layleen’s death prompted a lawsuit against Rikers, calls to end solitary confinement, and a bail fund for transgendered people. As of September 6th, The Emergency Release Fund has raised over 10,000 dollars for 6 trans inmates.

Rikers Prison is known for its severe human rights abuses including acts of physical violence and rape by prison gaurds against inmates. It is also known for its excessive use of solitary confinement. Democratic Socialist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that Layleen’s treatment in Rikers “amounted to torture.” The news of Layleen’s death has sparked protests in New York where trans activists are declaring that “cash bail…the use of solitary confinement, and systematic neglect” were what killed Layleen. 

According to the 2017 US Transgender Survey, trans people are 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by inmates and 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by the staff of correctional facilities than the general incarcerated population. 

Layleen Polanco’s sister Melania Brown and Tabytha Gonzalez at a rally for Layleen (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

The treatment of Layleen goes against Rikers prison’s own regulations, which supposedly forbid people with serious medical conditions from being put in solitary confinement. Yet trans people are “regularly placed in solitary confinement for minor alleged infractions and in some cases for no reason at all” [author emphasis]. The hole, as political prisoners in the United States and Canada have called solitary, has long been used as a way to dole out intensified punishment for racialized inmates. Layleen’s position as a Latina trans woman contributed to the despicable conditions she was forced to endure during her incarceration.

Layleen would not have died if she was not a working class person. She was arrested on a misdemeanour charge for drug possession, a charge disportionately aimed art poor and racialized people who are visible in public. Further, she was unable to post a bond of $500 for her temporary release meaning that she first did not have the money for bail and second did not have the credit or assets deemed as collateral to a bail bond company. The City, a New York non-profit newsletter, writes, “her case was forwarded to a bail fund that declined to take her case for reasons that remain unknown.” If she was able to pay bail or purchase a bond, she could have spent her time awaiting trial outside the prison walls and would not have died in a solitary confinement cell.

Martin Kaminer, who started The Emergency Bail Fund, said trans people “are being killed all over this country for who they are.” In the streets and in the prisons trans people are being murdered by bigots and pigs, whether through outright brutality or neglect. Kaminer’s trans bail fund is a well-needed resource for working class trans people as we work toward abolishing prisons and police altogether.


Donate to The Emergency Release Fund and/or email to set up a donation to the Bread, Roses and Hormones Trans Survival Fund.

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