A Trans Woman Died at Rikers: “The City Failed to Protect Layleen”

The inmate was found unresponsive in her cell Saturday.
A Trans Woman Died at Rikers: “The City Failed to Protect Layleen”

A transgender inmate was found unresponsive in her cell Friday after less than two months at Rikers Island, the New York City jail with a history of violence. Her family, along with a number of advocacy groups, are demanding answers.

Layleen Polcano, 27, was arrested April 16 for alleged possession of a controlled substance and assault of a cab driver, according to WABC in New York. She was then placed in the Rose M. Singer Center, a part of Rikers that holds female inmates and just recently started housing transgender women.


Jail staff tried to revive Polcano, but she was pronounced dead about an hour after she was found in her cell. The Department of Corrections has promised a full investigation, although officials don’t believe there was any foul play in her death.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether she had any health issues before she entered jail. According to November testimony to a New York City Council committee from Brooke Menschel, an attorney for Brooklyn Defender Services, the physical and mental health needs of transgender inmates aren’t always met at Rikers. Criminal justice reform advocates have long fought to close the troubled prison entirely.

“The city failed to protect Layleen, and now it’s trying to sweep her death under the rug. We will not allow it,” her family said in a statement shared by her lawyer, David B. Shanies. Their representation has not yet responded to a VICE News request for comment.

Hundreds are expected to attend a rally in New York City on Monday night to honor Polcano, according to a Facebook listing for the event, which is co-sponsored by more than a dozen advocacy groups. Polcano’s death comes just three weeks before the city will hold World Pride to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, which launched the gay rights movement.

“This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family," Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said. "We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority.”

Transgender women of color have suffered from alarming levels of violence in recent years. Two black transgender women were killed in Dallas in recent weeks. Since 2014, at least 110 transgender women have been killed — the majority of whom were black or Latinx. Only 42 percent of those investigations resulted in an arrest.

Cover Image: New York's Rikers Island correctional facility on March 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)