Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a 27 year-old Afro-Latinx trans woman who had epilepsy and schizophrenia, died in June at New York’s Rikers Island after being placed in punitive segregation. An autopsy found that she died of an epileptic seizure.
Her family brought a civil suit against New York City and several officials on Monday, claiming that staff did not provide proper accommodation for her disabilities, medical care, or safe housing. The complaint states that the defendants “were deliberately indifferent to a known and substantial risk of serious injury to her.”
Cubilette-Polanco was taken to Rikers after being arrested in April on misdemeanor assault charges and was held on $500 bond. A judge ordered her release on the assault charges, but she continued to be detained for low-level drug charges and prostitution charges from two years earlier.
Cubilette-Polanco was placed in a unit for trans women, where she was involved in a fight and then relocated to punitive segregation. Her isolation was supposed to last 20 days.
The complaint says that city and corrections staffers violated her Fourteenth Amendment rights of due process and equal protection under the law. It also accuses them of violating Section II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The suit alleges staffers knew about her epilepsy and schizophrenia and placed her in segregation anyway, in violation of Department of Corrections regulations that forbid segregation for inmates with serious medical or psychiatric conditions.
Her lawyers contend in their complaint that people with epilepsy require 24-hour monitoring due to risk of suffocation and other hazards from seizures. Cubilette-Polanco suffered serious injuries to her head and face during an episode that occurred at or around the time she was placed in segregation. She did not receive medical care for the injury or precautionary screening for the affects of head trauma, according to the suit.
Although the suit states that officers found her unresponsive at 1 p.m., they took no action and at 3 p.m., when they went to her cell again and found her condition unchanged. When they entered they cell, they discovered that she was dead. “She had been dead so long that first responders found her body cold to the touch.,” the complaint states.
Andrea J. Ritchie, a lawyer and author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, said that the treatment Cubilette-Polanco was subjected to is all too common.
“Trans women and particularly trans women of color spend a lot of time, whether they’re incarcerated in jails or in prisons, in some form of segregation,” she said. “It puts them at increased risk of violence, increased risk of medical complications, or in Layleen’s case, death. It puts them at increased risk of mental health need because the conditions themselves are detrimental to one’s mental health.”
Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of the 2017 book The End of Policing, told ThinkProgress that Cubilette-Polanco’s death was part of a wider problem within the criminal justice system. When you understand that cities often use the criminal justice system to manage people experiencing financial precarity and poverty, it’s easier to understand how Cubilette-Polanco wound up in Rikers in the first place.
“New York City has produced this huge population of folks who are living in very precarious circumstances,” Vitale explained. “Whether they’re involved in low-level drug dealing, low-level thievery, sex work, living outdoors, experiencing mental health crises, drug addiction — the city’s primary response to all these populations has been to put them in the criminal justice system and to cycle them through specialized courts and Rikers Island and constant police engagement.”
Vitale said that if the city worked to decriminalize sex work, develop accessibility to medical care, including epilepsy care and mental health care, and provided high quality neighborhood-based health services, it’s possible Cubilette-Polanco wouldn’t have had contact with the criminal justice system.
He added that sometimes it is the most vulnerable prisoners who end up in segregation. “We know that punitive segregation and various forms of solitary confinement are always disproportionately populated with folks with mental health problems because they’re not capable of providing care in a humane way in that setting,” Vitale said.
“So those folks become labeled as a problem to be managed through punitive segregation. We don’t know the details of what led to the fight that resulted in putting her there but this is a common pattern that the most vulnerable prisoners end up in punitive segregation.”
In June, shortly after Cubilette-Polanco’s death, more than 600 people gathered in Foley Square in New York City to mourn her. The event was hosted by the New York City Anti-Violence Project and co-sponsored by over 30 organizations, including the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, Translatina Network, Global Action Project, Lambda Legal, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
Cubilette-Polanco’s mother, Arecelis Polanco, her sister, Melania Brown, and her brother, Salomon Cubilette, went to the rally and wore LGBTQ Pride rainbows. Later that month, Cubilette-Polanco’s family and activists gathered at City Hall to demand accountability for her death.
Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) shared Cubilette-Polanco’s story in July and called for reforms to the criminal justice system. Warren tweeted, “Let’s be clear: Layleen Cubilette-Polanco should still be alive. Solitary confinement is cruel and inhumane. We must end this practice, enforce strict standards for medical care, and provide extra layers of protection for LGBTQ+ people.”
Andrea Ritchie said efforts such as No New Jails, which was formed in 2018 and had many of its members come from The Campaign to Shutdown Rikers, is by far the better solution.
“We need another approach, and that’s not building smaller jails in the boroughs and it’s not building jails specifically for trans women. It’s not building jail for people with unmet mental health needs, because no one is getting good mental health care in a cage,” Ritchie said.
“Her life is so important and so valuable on her own and to her family and the people who loved and cared about her,” she added, speaking of Cubilette-Polanco’s death. “But it’s also important as a clarion call to all of us to really heed the demand that this not be our approach to poverty, that this not be our approach to unmet mental health needs, and unmet health care needs,” Ritchie said.
“This can’t be our response to structural exclusion of trans women of color,” she said. “It can’t be our response to every form of need, or harm, or conflict, and it’s literally costing people’s lives.”