New York City has reached a $5.9 million settlement with the family of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco more than a year after she died in her “restrictive housing” cell at Rikers Island, a major development in a case that has drawn national attention and brought urgency to the movements to dismantle solitary confinement, end cash bail, and decriminalize sex work.
The settlement stemmed from the Polanco family’s lawsuit for reckless indifference and represented the largest payout in history by the city for an individual who died in custody, according to the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP).
In response, Polanco’s family described the settlement as a “difficult decision” and made it clear that it was just an incremental step in a much broader push for justice for Polanco and other trans women of color who have lost their lives at far too young an age.
Family, advocates, saying this is only a first step, reaffirm demands for overdue criminal justice reforms
“This lawsuit was only one way we were seeking justice for Layleen and this is only just the start.” Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, said in a written statement. “To this day, despite evidence of negligence, no one has been held accountable for my sister’s death. The guards who were responsible for caring for my sister must be fired.”
It has been an enduring slog for a family that demanded answers from the moment they found out that Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latinx trans woman, was found dead in her jail cell in June of last year due to seizures caused by epilepsy. Following investigations and vigilant advocacy on the part of Polanco’s family and others, it was revealed that jail officials tasked with overseeing her well-being did not adequately provide mental healthcare to her and carelessly blew off her health emergency on the final day she was alive.
The settlement follows a slew of updates to the case that frustrated Polanco’s family and advocates over the summer: Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark first announced that the officers tasked with monitoring Polanco would not be charged, and then she deadnamed Polanco in a press release about that probe, adding insult to injury.
Yet, a sobering report published by the Board of Correction on June 23 blasted correction officials for their treatment of Polanco. The board outlined the ways in which officials made an aggressive push to place Polanco in “segregation” against the recommendations of mental healthcare providers and indicated that there was “increased pressure” to place her in “restrictive housing,” which is a form of solitary confinement.
That report led Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce that 17 correction officers would be punished for their role in Polanco’s case — through suspensions, not loss of their jobs. He also unveiled a plan to gradually end the practice of solitary confinement in New York City.
The report prompted prominent elected officials, including Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Queens Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to speak out against solitary confinement and cash bail.
AVP, which has provided support to Polanco’s family in the aftermath of her death, is calling for the passing of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, the repeal of the Walking While Trans Ban, and the firing of officers involved. The organization also wants to see the creation of a database detailing misconduct records against correction officers.
The case has further drawn attention to the movements to comprehensively decriminalize sex work and end cash bail because Polanco was being held in part for missing court dates following a sex work-related arrest. She was unable to afford the $500 bail.
Make the Road New York and TS Candii, the lead organizer of the Repeal the Walking While Trans Ban coalition, responded to the settlement by calling on the State Legislature to repeal the loitering law that has been used to discriminate against trans women of color and sex workers. The advocates also called on the City Council to schedule a hearing on a resolution in support of the repeal bill in the State Legislature.
“Say her name! Layleen Polanco,” TS Candii said in a written statement. “We continue to be criminalized simply for being who we are and needing to survive. We continue to suffer the damages of arrests for dressing sexy, and for just wanting to exist in the world. If New York City cares about Black trans lives, if #BlackTransLivesMatter, then we need more murals and settlements.”
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