This video, from the Polanco family lawyer, has been edited for length and to conceal faces of other inmates.
A transgender woman who died locked up at Rikers Island was left unchecked by correction officers for a roughly 45-minute stretch — despite jail policies that said she needed to be checked every 15 minutes, new surveillance video released by her family and viewed by BuzzFeed News shows.
The video is the latest piece of evidence in the death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, 27, who suffered an epileptic seizure in the notorious New York City prison in June 2019. It comes as the nation is reckoning with systemic racism in how law enforcement officials — including police and prison guards — treat Black, LGBTQ, Latinx, and people of color.
Polanco was being held at Rikers on $501 bail for an assault and prostitution charge, both misdemeanors.
The video, first reported by NBC News, is from surveillance footage inside the jail. It shows correction officers routinely checking on Polanco in her “punitive segregation” — essentially solitary confinement — cell on June 7, 2019, up until 1:42 p.m.
Then, there’s a 47-minute gap until an officer checks on Polanco at 2:27 p.m. At 2:45 p.m., two correction officers, apparently seeing something was wrong, open Polanco’s cell, start calling in to her. Then they both laugh for an unknown reason.
“It was horrifying for the family to see this footage,” David Shanies, a lawyer representing Polanco’s family in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and Department of Correction employees. “They were completely unprepared for what they saw. They all broke into hysterical crying, understandably. And to this day, Layleen’s mother is haunted by the images of the guard laughing at her daughter.”
Shanies called the officers' laughter “unfathomable, and it’s really just a symbol of the complete disregard the entire system had for Layleen.”
The New York City Anti-Violence Project, which focuses on the LGBTQ community, said the video revealed “neglect and humiliation” of Polanco.
The group is calling for the correction officers involved and their captain to be fired, an end to solitary confinement in New York City jails, a repeal for “provisions relating to loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense,” and to keep the state’s recent bail reform measures in place.
Thousands of transgender people are regularly subjected to neglect and violence and stripped of their humanity within our nation’s jails and prisons. These acts of state violence have to stop,” said executive director Beverly Tillery.
Earlier this month, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said that after a six-month investigation she would not file any criminal charges. “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,” she said. The correction officers face possible administrative action.
Clark’s office compiled a detailed 24-page report on Polanco’s death.
When Polanco was brought to Rikers, she “made DOC aware that she suffered from a seizure disorder,” the report said. “Polanco suffered at least two documented, visible seizures during her time on Rikers Island.”
The report said Polanco was placed in isolation for 20 days after allegedly assaulting another inmate and getting into a scuffle with a correction officer. On May 30, 2019, a doctor said she was medically fit to be put in isolation.
The day she died, at 12:50 p.m., a corrections officer “made her rounds again and looked into Ms. Polanco’s cell. When she glanced into the cell, she saw Ms. Polanco, who she believed to be asleep, under the blankets, with her head towards the wall closest to her face,” according to the report.
At 1:40, officials looked into her cell to see if she wanted to go to group therapy and reported seeing her in roughly the same position. A correction officer told investigations she believed Polanco “was breathing and that she was asleep with headphones in. The two Correction Officers walked away without entering the cell.”
At 2:40 p.m., Polanco was in the same position. The officers “they opened the door and began calling out for her from inside her cell,” according to the report. “They found Ms. Polanco in the bed and turned her over. They found that she was unresponsive, had vomit on her face, and was not breathing.”
A correction officer first goes into the cell at 2:48 p.m., setting off a chain of events that involved medical officers arriving at the cell. Polanco was declared dead at 3:45 p.m.