How New York’s Criminal Justice System Killed a Transgender Woman at Rikers Island

Layleen Polanco was arrested on sex work charges, incarcerated for not making $500 bail, and held in solitary.

Transgender rights activists gather for a rally to demand an investigation into the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman, while at Rikers, in New York, June 10, 2019. Polanco was found unresponsive in her cell two months after bring sent to Rikers because she could not afford to pay a $500 bail. (Stephanie Keith for The New York Times)

Transgender rights activists rally in New York on June 10, 2019, to demand an investigation into the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman, who was found dead while incarcerated at Rikers Island Jail.

Photo: Stephanie Keith for The New York Times/Redux

Too little is known about the death of Layleen Polanco. This we know: The 27-year-old Afro-Latina transgender woman was found dead in solitary confinement last Friday afternoon at Rikers Island Jail. Polanco was being held on $500 bail owing to misdemeanor charges for a prostitution-related offense, in addition to the lowest-level drug charge. The New York medical examiner has not yet determined the cause of her death.

Polanco’s death sits at the intersection of some of the criminal justice system’s worst excesses.

These sparse details alone are enough to know that Polanco’s death sits at the intersection of some of the criminal justice system’s worst excesses: the criminalization of sex workers and the policing of trans women of color that it entails; the cash bail system; the use of solitary confinement; and the fact that institutions like Rikers exist at all.

“Layleen’s interactions with the criminal legal system exemplify the ways in which our state sanctions violence against trans and gender non-confirming communities of color,” said a statement from Decrim NY, a coalition working toward the full decriminalization of consensual sex work in New York state. “Polanco’s death was caused by an 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.”

On Monday night, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Manhattan to pay tribute to Polanco and to join in her family and the broader LGBTQ+ community’s calls for answers and justice. Polanco, also known as Layleen Xtravaganza, was a member of the iconic New York ballroom family, House of Xtravaganza. Her death, coinciding with celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, stands as a stark reminder that the struggle goes on to end state violence against trans and queer lives.

“The fact that we don’t have her here right now pisses me the fuck off, and the fact that they left her and neglected her is not right,” said actress and model Gisele Alicea, the mother of the House of Xtravaganza, on Monday night. According to statements from David Shanies, Polanco’s attorney, the staff at Rikers knew that Polanco had a serious seizure disorder.

The New York City Department of Correction said it is conducting a “full investigation” into what happened to Polanco in its facility. The fact remains, however, that the young woman should never have been incarcerated in the first place.

In April, the New York State Legislature passed a bill to end cash bail for most misdemeanor and low-level offenses, but the law doesn’t go into effect until January 2020. Polanco’s death highlighted the urgency of abolishing the cash bail system nationwide and ensuring that such laws are properly enacted.

The timing of Polanco’s death is rife with grim ironies.

That a judge, knowing full well that legislation had been passed to end cash bail for these offenses, would nonetheless incarcerate a person like Polanco for failing to pay bail speaks to the cruelty of judicial discretion.

The timing of Polanco’s death is rife with other grim ironies. On Monday — three days after Polanco’s death and the same day that New Yorkers rallied in her memory — progressive state lawmakers introduced the nation’s most robust bill for the decriminalization of sex work. If passed, the bill — the work of years of sex worker rights organizing and advocacy to build previously unthinkable political will for reform — would make New York the first state to fully decriminalize consensual sex work. It would put an end to cases like Polanco’s, who was arrested by an undercover cop in a prostitution sting in 2017.

Transgender women — particularly transgender women of color — disproportionately turn to sex work, in the face of grave discrimination in other industries. Analysis by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey in 2015 found that of 6,400 transgender individuals asked, 40 percent of black or black multiracial respondents and 33 percent of Latinx-identified respondents had participated in the sex trade.

Police nationwide have made a habit of targeting trans women of color for prostitution arrests, stings, and bogus charges like “loitering for prostitution.” While some locales have instituted partial decriminalization and programs like diversion courts to avoid the appearance of draconian policies, cases like Polanco’s give the lie to claims that these approaches do not punish sex workers. Polanco, for instance, was first sent to human trafficking court after her arrest, but a warrant was issued for her to be taken into custody again after she missed court dates.

“[A]ll of these supposed reforms didn’t do anything for Layleen,” said Jessica Peñaranda, director of movement building at the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center and a Decrim NY steering committee member, in a statement. “The clients we serve view diversion court and criminal court as one in the same: The trauma and violence of interacting with court officers, police officers, judges and district attorneys who have authority to send you to jail, all of that is no different.”

Only full decriminalization, like in the new proposed bill, removes criminal legal coercion from sex workers’ lives — something that can’t be said often enough. Without economic justice and an end to transphobic persecution, there will still be no justice for women like Polanco. But full sex work decriminalization would allow the space for those struggles to continue without the added threat of police and carceral violence.

At the end of April, in recognition of the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would erect a monument in honor of the transgender activists and Stonewall uprising leaders Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The official recognition of these liberation fighters is welcome and long overdue. “Transgender and nonbinary communities are reeling from violent and discriminatory attacks across the country,” de Blasio said during his announcement. “Here in New York City, we are sending a clear message: We see you for who you are, we celebrate you, and we will protect you.”

Yet it was New York City institutions that killed Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza — and will continue to destroy the lives of transgender women of color while sex work is criminalized, trans communities are stigmatized, and jails and prisons remain full of the poor and persecuted.

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