The family of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a trans woman who died under mysterious circumstances at Rikers Island on June 7, announced at a June 26 rally that they are filing a federal civil rights lawsuit in response to her death.
The afternoon rally at the steps of City Hall marked the start of a whirlwind day that featured an emotional call for action and the glaring absence of councilmembers who backed out of attending the event over the inclusion of the advocacy group No New Jails NYC, a local coalition that opposes the jail expansion. The day ended with the City Council ultimately approving a package of bills to address issues facing transgender and gender nonconforming people in city custody, even as some anti-LGBTQ lawmakers refused to support to the measures.
The main takeaway from the day, however, came when attorney David Shanies, representing the family of Cubilette-Polanco, stood alongside advocates and Cubilette-Polanco’s family members and declared that his team will no longer wait for government officials who have dragged their feet for weeks.
“We intend to file a federal civil rights lawsuit and we’re going to get the answers ourselves,” Shanies said.
Department of Correction (DOC) officials told Gay City News following Cubilette-Polanco’s death that an officer was patrolling the housing area at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island at around 2:40 p.m. when he found the 27-year-old unresponsive in her cell. Cubilette-Polanco, who had a history of medical conditions, was being held in “restrictive housing,” which is similar to solitary confinement. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has yet to provide an explanation for her death.
Others at the rally echoed the calls for answers, including Cubilette-Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, who said she has been unable to mourn because silence from the government has left her filled with anger.
“We have no answers,” Brown said. “They haven’t answered anything. We don’t know anything. I don’t know what happened to my sister.”
“She was left like she was road kill,” Brown added.
Shanies told Gay City News that the mayor’s office and other city officials told the family in the days following Cubilette-Polanco’s death that they were “very concerned” and wanted to give the family as much information as they could.
“Not long after that, they told us that they’d be giving us no information,” he said.
Manhattan Assemblymember Dan Quart, who was the only lawmaker present at the rally, acknowledged that multiple levels of government — including the State Legislature — have failed to take necessary action to protect trans folks like Polanco.
“We are here to continue the process for justice, to demand answers, but never to give up on finding out what happened on Rikers Island  days ago,” Quart said.
Dozens of advocacy groups, including those at the rally, signed onto a letter led by the Anti-Violence Project and addressed to Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo calling for accountability at the city and state level. They are demanding an expedited autopsy of Cubilette-Polanco and the passage of laws alleviating solitary confinement, among a handful of other requests.
Eighteen councilmembers from the City Council’s Progressive Caucus and Women’s Caucus also signed onto a separate letter with similar requests on June 26. Some of those lawmakers were slated to attend the rally, but the appearance of representatives from No New Jails prompted city lawmakers who take issue with that organization’s goals to back out. No city lawmakers attended.
Councilmember Helen Rosenthal of Manhattan told Gay City News that she had a personal matter that prevented her from attending, but also cited the presence of No New Jails as a second reason why she did not show up.
“I feel uncomfortable about that from a practical standpoint,” Rosenthal explained in a phone interview. “While I stand firmly with everyone in the rally for humane treatment of everyone, including the transgender and gender nonconforming community, I feel uncomfortable calling for the end of demarcating everyone, which was part of the rally,” she said.
Hours after the rally was complete, city lawmakers voted in favor of a package of bills focused on improving the treatment of TGNC individuals in city custody. Rosenthal led one of those bills establishing a task force on issues facing TGNC people in custody. That task force will consist of a cross section of representatives, including those from the Commission on Human Rights, the DOC, and current and former incarcerated trans folks.
The other bills that passed at the same time included one requiring facilities housing TGNC people to provide mental health treatment, while another similarly requires those same facilities to provide access to comprehensive substance abuse treatment. A fourth bill requires the DOC to report on housing decisions of TGNC individuals.
Councilmembers Mark Levine of Manhattan and Paul Vallone of Queens, out gay Councilmember Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn, and anti-LGBTQ Councilmember Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx were absent from those votes. Homophobic City Councilmember Ruben Diaz, Sr., of the Bronx was listed as “nonvoting,” while Brooklyn Councilmember Kalman Yeger abstained.
Meanwhile, an important bill to create a comprehensive and independent appeals process — a piece of legislation was a point of contention at a May hearing — was not a part of the package of bills that passed.
At that may hearing, the DOC showed resistance to the legislative package when the agency’s officials explicitly voiced opposition the bill creating the task force while refusing to endorse the others.
It is not immediately clear whether the bill establishing the independent appeals process will come to a vote.