New York City pays out record settlement in death of trans inmate

by Oscar Lopez | @oscarlopezgib | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 31 August 2020 20:29 GMT

A person holds up a picture of Layleen Polanco, a transgender person who died at the Rikers Island prison, during a Black Trans Lives Matter rally in the Brooklyn borough in New York City, U.S., June 14, 2020. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

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Trans woman Layleen Polanco died in a New York City jail last year

By Oscar Lopez

MEXICO CITY, Aug 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The family of a transgender woman who died in a New York jail has settled a lawsuit with the city for $5.9 million dollars, the largest civil settlement paid for a death in custody, according to advocates.

Layleen Polanco, 27, a Black Hispanic trans woman, died of an epileptic seizure during solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail in June 2019, and her family sued the city for reckless indifference.

"Despite the settlement, my family isn't done fighting," said Polanco's sister Melania Brown in a statement. "This lawsuit was only one way we were seeking justice for Layleen and this is only just the start."

In a report issued earlier this year, a city oversight agency said jail staff failed to check on Polanco regularly enough while she was in solitary confinement.

The report from the Board of Correction also said staff failed to notice that Polanco had epilepsy, which it called a "serious medical condition."

In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio said 17 Corrections staff would be disciplined for their involvement in the death.

"The death of Layleen Polanco was an incredibly painful moment for our city," he said. "What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability."

Polanco, a prominent member of the city's LGBT+ ballroom scene, was jailed for being unable to pay $500 bail after getting arrested on several misdemeanor charges and failing to show up for court hearings, according to local media.

The settlement, the largest recorded in such a case according to the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), an advocacy group, closes out the family's federal civil lawsuit.

But the family has called for jail reforms, an end to solitary confinement and for the staff involved to be fired.

The city's Department of Investigation and the Bronx District Attorney's office declined to press charges against Rikers' officials.

Polanco's family has released video footage from the jail showing staff tried to wake her for approximately an hour and a half before calling for medical help.

The mayor has said New York will end the use of solitary confinement and put such a policy into practice as it dismantles the Rikers complex and decentralizes to jails located throughout the city.

Advocates say the death is part of a pattern of transgender people mistreated by authorities.

A nationwide study by the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2015 found more than half of trans people surveyed reported mistreatment such as police harassment.

The survey 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 inmates.

"The neglect and utter disregard for Layleen's life by prison officials is reprehensible," said Beverly Tillery, executive director of AVP, in a statement.

"What happened to Layleen is reflective of thousands of transgender people who are regularly subjected to neglect and violence and stripped of their humanity within our nation's jails and prisons."

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(Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib; editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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