Supporters and mourners of Layleen Polanco on stage at the Monday rally at Foley Square. All photos by Alyza Enriquez, for VICE.

'The State Is Her Ultimate Killer': How a Trans Woman Died at Rikers

The Black transgender woman was found dead in her cell at Rikers Island. These are the circumstances that led to her death.

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Jun 12 2019, 6:53pm

Supporters and mourners of Layleen Polanco on stage at the Monday rally at Foley Square. All photos by Alyza Enriquez, for VICE.

At Manhattan’s Foley Square on Monday evening, transgender community leaders, Black Lives Matter activists, and friends of Layleen Polanco could be heard sounding off from blocks away. More than a hundred people had gathered in the civic center of the city to demand justice for the Black trans woman who was found dead in solitary confinement at Rikers Island on Friday.

The crowd’s chants echoed against the pillars and stone steps of the surrounding buildings, among them the New York State Supreme Court, inscribed with the words The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.

"There is no justice," said Gisele Alicea Xtravaganza into the mic, her head bent forward in grief. "She is gone." Alicea was a member of Polanco’s chosen family, and is the Mother of the House of Xtravaganza ballroom collective, of which Polanco was a key member.

Cecilia Gentili, a trans Latina and firebrand for progressive policy in New York, followed Alicea on stage. "I sat with Layleen's mother today," Gentili said, her eyes wet with tears. "She is inconsolable. She needs to know what happened, she needs to know what led to her daughter dying by herself, in an empty cell under solitary confinement."

The DOC has stated that Polanco’s death was not caused by violence, but has not released any further information about how she died.

On Monday morning before the rally, Gentili, who is a steering committee member for the sex worker advocacy group Decrim NY, helped introduce a bill that would decriminalize sex work in New York state. To sex worker advocates like Gentili, Polanco’s death is testament to why decriminalization is necessary in order to end the high murder and incarceration rates for trans women of color in the U.S.

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Melania Brown, who considered Polanco a sister, at the rally on Monday.
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A member of the House of Xtravaganza, who call Polanco her mother, speaking at the Monday rally.

Polanco, 27, was arrested on April 16th on misdemeanor charges related to an alleged assault.

On April 19th, she was released of those charges, but continued to be held at Rikers Island for failure to pay a $500 bail resulting from bench warrants (issued when a person fails to appear in court) connected to a 2017 arrest.

According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, in 2017, Polanco had been targeted in a sting operation by the NYPD, which deployed undercover police officers to solicit sex acts in exchange for money. Polanco allegedly consented, and was subsequently arrested, at which point the undercover officer allegedly found her to be in criminal possession of a controlled substance.

Following her 2017 arrest, Polanco was sent to Manhattan’s Anti-Trafficking Court, a diversionary court intended to aid people through mandated counseling sessions rather than prosecute them. But Polanco missed several dates to appear before the court, so the court issued new bench warrants for her arrest in 2018.

New York news outlet The City reports that, after being held in a specialized unit for trans women on Rikers Island, Polanco was placed in solitary confinement as punishment for being involved in a fight. On Friday, a jail officer found her unconscious in her cell, according to the Department of Corrections. She was pronounced dead at 3:45 P.M.

On Tuesday, Decrim NY issued a press release commenting on Polanco’s death and prior arrest. “Layleen’s interactions with the criminal legal system exemplify the ways in which our state sanctions violence against TGNC communities of color,” it reads. “Polanco’s death was caused by the all-too-common overlap of three aspects of the criminal legal system: She was criminalized for sex work. She was held on $500 bail for misdemeanor charges. And she was placed in solitary confinement.”

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Supporters at Foley Square.

In a 2015 survey of transgender Americans conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 21 percent of Black respondents said they had participated in sex work for income (compared to 12 percent of overall respondents). And data produced by sex worker advocacy organization The Red Umbrella Project found that of 6,400 trans people surveyed, Black and Black-multiracial respondents reported the highest levels of interaction with law enforcement, at 83 percent. According to a 2012 study by Lambda Legal, nearly one in six transgender Americans—and one in two black transgender people—has been to prison, and "once behind bars, discriminatory policies and the constant threat of sexual assault can make prison a living hell for this already mistreated group."

In its statement, Decrim NY also sided with sex work and criminalization experts who argue

that diversionary courts do not provide the help they claim to, in part by ignoring the full scope of a person's life experience and identity, and by continuing to identify sex work as criminal behavior.

“Firstly, mandated counseling sessions don’t and can never meaningfully address any of the root economic causes of why people trade sex, which is why Layleen cycled through the diversion court without getting the support or resources she may have needed,” Jessica Peñaranda, Decrim NY Steering Committee Member and Director of Movement Building at The Sex Workers Project at The Urban Justice Center said in the statement. “While going through the onerous diversion programming, people are still left with a criminal record. For Layleen, her missed sessions with the diversion court left her with a criminal record, but also was the reason why she had bail set on her case, and her pre-trial incarceration at Rikers is what killed her.

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Cecilia Gentili in an embrace after speaking at the rally.

Advocates for criminal justice reform have, for many years, been demanding the closure of Rikers Island, which is notorious for mistreatment of inmates. New York City has vowed to close the prison by 2024.

"We have to find out what happened to our sister, we have to fight for her," Alicea continued at the rally, which was organized by LGBTQ community organization the Anti-Violence Project. Polanco had a medical condition that caused her to experience seizures, of which Rikers personnel was aware, according to friends and family. Corrections officials have reportedly said that findings from the autopsy will not be released for 12 weeks.

In a statement to the Washington Post about Polanco’s death, Department of Corrections Commissioner Cynthia Brown said, “This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family.” Brown added that safety and well-being of people incarcerated within the Department’s prisons is a “top priority.”

Many activists and loved ones of Polanco’s, however, find the statement to be darkly ironic. In the eyes of Chase Strangio, a staff attorney for the ACLU and a transgender man, the DOC is necessarily responsible for Polanco’s death, regardless of the specific means by which her life ended.

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Supporters at Foley Square following the rally on Monday.

“Whether Layleen died from medical neglect, as the result of assault or by suicide, the state is her ultimate killer,” Strangio said. “By locking her in a cage that is inherently cruel and violent, it is the government who is responsible for keeping her alive. And we as taxpayers and residents of New York, we are the employers of our politicians and the funders of this city, so it is ultimately on us to hold our city to account. Trans women of color are dying because at all levels of government they are treated as disposable. The result is street-based violence, in-home violence, structural violence and government-sanctioned death.”

Polanco's death follows a string of recent killings of Black trans women across the country.

At the rally on Monday, actor Indya Moore, another member of the House of Xtravaganza, recited the names and details of the nine known violent deaths of Black trans women that have occurred so far this year. In the hit TV series Pose, Moore plays a transgender sex worker who lives in 80s New York and finds chosen family through the ballroom scene. Growing up, Moore said she knew Polanco.

“I looked up to her,” Moore said. “Our community is literally dying to live...We will not back down, we Rest in Peace no more.”

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