A jail officer found Layleen Polanco, 27, unresponsive in her Rikers Island cell Friday. She was pronounced dead soon afterward. A spokeswoman for the city medical examiner said that the cause of death had yet to be determined, but that injuries were "not found to contribute" and that additional toxicology tests were being done.
David Shanies, an attorney for Polanco's mother and sister, said jail officials were aware of Polanco's health problems and that she had been hospitalized between May 16 and May 25. "Layleen never should have been left alone in a cell to die," he said in an interview.
Correctional Health Services, which provides medical care to inmates, declined to comment on Polanco's medical history, citing patient privacy. Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in an email, "This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family. We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority."
Polanco had been sent to Rikers in mid-April after her arrest on an assault charge while facing prostitution and drug possession charges dating to April 2017. Polanco remained behind bars almost two months later because $500 bail still had to be paid, according to court records.
At the time of her death, Polanco was at the Rose M. Singer Center, which houses female inmates and detainees on Rikers Island. Polanco was in a restrictive housing unit, meaning she was required to spend the majority of her day in her cell, with up to seven hours outside it.
She had been there since May 30 in connection to an assault on another inmate, according to the department. Her death spurred outrage among advocates. Legal Aid, where she was a client, said in a statement, "Ms. Polanco's passing is a tragic reminder of the heightened risk and physical and emotional torture that transgender people — especially those from communities of color — face in the criminal legal system, particularly while in custody. Her heartbreaking and untimely death warrants a swift, complete, independent, and transparent investigation."