Nearly a year after Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, was found dead in her cell at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, an investigation into her death by the city’s Department of Corrections has concluded with no criminal charges filed.
Polanco was arrested on April 16, 2019 for controlled substance and assault of a cab driver, ABC News reports, and was held on $500 bail partly as a result of an existing years-old prostitution charge. After a fight with another inmate, Polanco was placed in a solitary confinement cell for 20 days, and an autopsy report eventually concluded that her sudden death there was the result of “epilepsy (SUDEP) due to a mutation in the CACNA1H gene.”
In a statement on Friday announcing the investigation’s findings, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said that the purview of the investigator’s office was “not to determine whether it was a wrong decision to place Ms. Polanco into Punitive Segregation while she was suffering from a documented seizure disorder… but to determine whether that decision rose to the level of criminal behavior.”
“After an in-depth investigation by my Public Integrity Bureau, we have concluded that we would be unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any individual committed any crime associated with Ms. Polanco’s demise,” Clark said.
Polanco’s death has been a flashpoint for Black and Latinx transgender rights in the New York, and has also stoked conversations about the city’s urgent need for cash bail reform. In response to her death, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement launched the “#HALTsolitary Campaign,” which brings together advocates, allies, and lawyers in an effort to end the practice of solitary confinement within the city’s jail system. In a statement, the group’s members said that they were “saddened and outraged by Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark’s callous disregard for the life of Layleen Polanco.”
“Facing sex work and drug charges, Layleen never should have been in jail, and both must be decriminalized,” the statement reads. “Furthermore, it is precisely because New York would lock a person with a dangerous seizure condition in solitary confinement that this medieval torture — this chamber of living death — must be abolished for everyone.”
Although the Department of Investigation probe did not uncover any criminality in the way Polanco was treated, it did find that corrections officers had failed to check in on Polanco in her cell every 15 minutes, as is DOC policy, but had instead allowed up to 47 minutes to elapse in some instances between checks.
“At a minimum, every inmate housed in Punitive Segregation shall be observed at least once every 15 minutes at irregular intervals,” Margaret Garnett, the commissioner of the Department of Investigation, said in a Friday statement.
Reform advocates have long been fighting to do away with cash bail in New York City, and won a major victory in 2019 when the New York legislature passed a progressive legislative package aimed at doing away with cash bail for many misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes. But partly under the cover of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed a budget reform measure that drastically rolled back the bail reforms just three months after they went into effect, temporarily dashing the hopes of those who wanted to see the practice eliminated in the city once and for all.
According to Cuomo’s agreement, the previously-abolished cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, like Polanco’s, was reinstated. Many suspected that this decision came at the hands of Republican constituents remaining unhappy with the original elimination of cash bail. Now that allies grapple, once again, with Polanco’s death, the ethical value of our cash bail system is at the forefront.
There are plenty of good reasons to want to do away with cash bail, which is, at its most essential, a way for those with means to “buy” themselves out of jail cells while they await trial. Those without are subjected to all the harms of incarceration, regardless of guilt.
But while New York’s rolled-back cash bail protocol — which goes into effect on July 1 — will still prohibit judges from assigning cash bail to most misdemeanors and violent felonies, they will have the option to use a person’s legal history and status in order to set cash bail — meaning that bail reform advocates will still have their work cut out for them for the foreseeable future.
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