BY REUVEN BLAU AND ROSA GOLDENSOHN. This story was first published on June 26, 2020 by THE CITY.
The de Blasio administration intends to discipline 17 uniformed jail staffers in the death of Layleen Polanco more than a year after she was found unresponsive inside a solitary Rikers Island cell in June 2019.
The news came hours after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens/The Bronx) called Friday morning for the firing of jail personnel involved in the chain of events that ended with the 27-year-old transgender woman’s death.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said three correction officers and one correction captain have been suspended without pay.
“The death of Layleen Polanco was an incredibly painful moment for our city,” de Blasio said in a statement released as the city got geared up for virtual events to mark the annual LGBTQ Pride celebration.
“What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability.”
The announcement also came hours after THE CITY asked the administration for comment for a planned article about the lack of consequences for Department of Correction workers more than a year after Polanco’s death from a seizure.
Peter Thorne, the Department of Correction’s primary spokesperson, ignored those questions. The department has also declined to immediately list the names of the officers being disciplined and what internal charges they may face.
Admin’s Conflicting Positions
The de Blasio administration, meanwhile, has undermined proposed reforms to solitary confinement in local lockups. And officials have taken the position that city jails do not use solitary confinement at all — saying 21 hours a day of isolation doesn’t count.
Polanco was put into solitary confinement over a doctor’s objections and despite her seizure disorder, according to a scathing report on her death released Wednesday by the city’s Board of Correction, which has independent oversight over jails.
Ocasio-Cortez, whose Bronx-Queens district includes Rikers, called Polanco’s death inside a solitary cell a “moral travesty” that was “in direct violation of corrections policy.”
“The corrections officers involved must be fired, and we must end solitary confinement and divest from prisons,” she added.
The jail oversight board report found a series of failures in the placement of Polanco in solitary and noted that inmates with serious medical conditions should not be isolated.
An earlier review by the city’s Department of Investigation revealed that Polanco was left unchecked for 47 minutes before her death. Inmates in solitary are required to be looked in on every 15 minutes, according to Department of Correction regulations.
Disturbing Video Highlights Grim Timeline
Surveillance video from Rikers, released earlier this month by her family’s attorney, shows multiple jail staffers looking into Polanco’s solitary confinement cell, with some knocking and waiting for her to respond. But they do not actually enter her cell until a “mentor captain” comes by and instructs them to, according to the Board of Correction’s report.
Although Polanco was unresponsive, her cell door had not been opened for hours, according to the report.
When officers finally did enter the cell, they “turned her body over, reportedly discovering that her face was purple and blue,” the report said.
The video shows one jail staffer doubled over outside the cell soon after entering the cell, seeming to gag while covering their mouth and holding their knees.
The union representing city correction officers called the suspensions “an egregious abuse of power that is unprecedented.”
The officers “are being thrown under the bus,” added Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, who said Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann and “her inept managers” are the ones who should be punished.
The union also slammed Ocasio-Cortez for speaking out.
“As a champion of progressivism, one would think that AOC understands that in America you are innocent until proven guilty and entitled to your constitutional rights,” said Michael Skelly, a union spokesperson.
The union noted that Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark announced earlier this month that she would not pursue any criminal charges tied to Polanco’s death.
“We believe that AOC and others continue to use Layleen Polanco in order to scapegoat correction officers and other law enforcement officers as that is what’s trending these days. It’s shameful,” Skelly added.
Death Spurred Reform Movement
Ocasio-Cortez first weighed in on Polanco’s death a year ago, immediately after THE CITY first reported that she died in solitary confinement.
No human being should be tortured by or in the United States.
That means NO ONE should be kept in solitary confinement.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 11, 2019
Polanco’s death spurred calls ranging from sharply limiting solitary confinement to abolishing the practice. But reforms have fallen by the wayside.
Still, her name continues to galvanize protest. Her sister Melania Brown spoke at a rally of thousands in Brooklyn at the Action for Black Trans Lives this month, part of a wave of demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops and other acts of police brutality around the country.
“It’s amazing just seeing her name everywhere, her pictures everywhere, and her story just reaches so many lives,” Brown told the crowd. “I’m the voice of my sister, and I will continue to fight for her. She is not here to speak for herself or for you guys, but I’m here.”
Polanco was given 20 days in so-called punitive segregation as punishment for her role in a fight with another detainee, officials have said. She’d been jailed in lieu of $500 bail for misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges.
Steve Martin, a federal monitor overseeing the Department of Correction, has criticized how the agency handles officers accused of excessive uses of force against inmates.
“This cultural dynamic, which is better described as an occupational ideology, runs counter to modern and professional correctional practice,” the report said.
This story was first published on June 26, 2020 by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.