Trans Woman’s Family Settles Over Her Rikers Island Death—But They Say It’s Not Enough

Layleen Polanco died of an epileptic seizure in a solitary jail cell prompting demands for limits on solitary confinement in New York City jails.

Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco | Facebook/Layleen Cubilette Polanco
Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco | Facebook/Layleen Cubilette Polanco

The family of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, who died while in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, will receive a record $5.9 million settlement from New York City.

According to multiple reports, the terms of the settlement reached on Friday were not made public. But Polanco’s family’s lawyer David Shanies confirmed published reports about the amount. Shanies also told local news outlet The City that it is the largest settlement in the city’s history for a death in jail, and that it “should serve as a powerful statement that trans lives matter.”

“Despite the settlement, my family isn’t done fighting,” Polanco’s sister Melania Brown also said in a statement

Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latinx transgender woman, died of an epileptic seizure in a solitary jail cell on Rikers Island in June 2019. Her death garnered national attention, with criminal justice advocates and elected officials calling out the injustices that transgender individuals face in prison as well as demanding limits on solitary confinement in New York City jails. 

Polanco was arrested and sent to Rikers in April 2019 because she couldn’t afford the $500 bail required to settle an outstanding warrant from two 2017 misdemeanors.

“A $500 bail gave her a death sentence. And it should have never happened that way,” Brown told NowThis in a 2019 video.

Polanco’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against New York City and other defendants in August 2019 after her death. The lawsuit alleged that correction officers failed to check on her frequently, even though she was at risk of having a seizure.

“Epileptics need consistent, 24-hour monitoring because of the risk of death from suffocation and other hazards seizures cause,” the suit stated.

Though the Bronx district attorney’s office declined to press charges in connection with Polanco’s death, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in June that 17 officers would face disciplinary action, including four immediate suspensions without pay.

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

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), whose district includes Rikers, has also called for the personnel involved in the events that led to Polanco’s death to be fired.

“The treatment of Layleen Polanco inside Rikers is a moral travesty and, as the Board of Corrections report has now confirmed, in direct violation of corrections policy,” she said in a June statement. ” The corrections officers involved must be fired, and we must end solitary confinement and divest from prisons.”

Brown echoed AOC’s sentiments, while telling The City that the settlement was not a substitute for the firing of correction officers involved in Palanco’s death.

“This is just the beginning of justice for my sister, this is not even close to being justice for her,” she said. “Justice would be holding those people who had something to do with my sister’s death accountable for their actions.”