New York jail death raises fears over treatment of trans prisoners

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 June 2019 22:29 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Corrections officers work in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit at the Rikers Island Correctional facility in New York March 12, 2015 REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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City Hall and jail officials said the death was under investigation but it was not the result of violence and said preliminary reports showed no foul play

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK, June 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death of a transgender woman in a New York City jail cell has prompted calls for an investigation by her family and supporters who said on Tuesday her fate illustrates the dangers trans people face in the U.S. criminal and legal system.

Layleen Polanco, 27, was found unresponsive at the Rikers Island jail last Friday and after medical efforts was pronounced dead, said the New York City Department of Correction.

Her cause of death has not been determined.

"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," said a statement by the Legal Aid Society.

The legal group, which works with people unable to afford a lawyer and represented Polanco, called for an independent city probe into the circumstances of her death.

City Hall and jail officials said the death was under investigation but it was not the result of violence and said preliminary reports showed no foul play.

The office of the City Medical Examiner said trauma was not a factor and it was conducting toxicology and other tests.

Polanco's family believes jail officials have not disclosed the full story of where she was being held inside the jail and other details.

"That's clearly information that they have," the family's attorney David Shanies told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We're speaking to city government officials in the hope that they will be transparent and forthcoming with the family. It remains to be seen whether that will be the case."

Hundreds of supporters rallied in Manhattan on Monday, calling for justice in the case.

Polanco, who lived with her family in a city suburb, was jailed on $500 bail for a minor assault charge, according to local media.

She was moved into a restrictive section of the jail on May 30 after an assault in which another prisoner was injured, jail officials said.

Of the trans people who participated in a nationwide U.S. survey in 2015, more than half reported mistreatment such as harassment by police and said they would feel uncomfortable asking police for help.

The survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality also found trans people in prison were more than five times more likely to be sexually assaulted by staff and more than nine times more likely to be sexually assaulted by other inmates. (Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit

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