RIKERS ISLAND — The family of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died while in custody on Rikers Island last year, has released new video they claim undermines recent findings that there was no criminality in her death.
The surveillance video, obtained by the family’s attorney and published by NBC News on Saturday, shows the outside of Polanco’s cell in a restrictive housing unit in the hours leading up to her being found dead.
Correction officers are periodically seen walking up to the door and looking through the window for several hours.
It also shows officers tried to wake Polanco without going into the cell for about an hour and half before calling for medical help.
At one point, two correction officers can be seen laughing after opening the cell door to check on an unresponsive Polanco.
The family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city as well as several Rikers Island staff members.
David Shanies, an attorney for Polanco’s family, told NBC News the footage offers information that was left out of investigative reports by the Bronx district attorney and the Department of Investigation when it was announced on June 5 that no criminal charges would be sought in the case.
When asked about the video on Sunday, the Bronx District Attorney’s Office referred PIX11 to its initial findings released on June 5.
A spokesperson for the Department of Investigation said the agency stands by its investigation.
“Ms. Polanco’s death is a tragic incident, as is any death inside the city’s jails. DOI and the Bronx DA’s office conducted a thorough and objective investigation into this matter, reviewing all available evidence, including all video footage, and interviewing numerous witnesses,” the spokesperson told PIX11 on Sunday. “We stand by the conclusions of that investigation, as set forth in our referral letter to DOC and the Bronx DA’s detailed public report.”
Polanco, 27, was found dead in her cell on June 7, 2019. Her cause of death was sudden unexplained death in epilepsy, according to the chief medical examiner.
She was arrested on April 13, and remained in jail because she could not afford to pay $500 bail, according to her family.
Civil rights groups have said the case is an example of how the justice system can trap people of color, leading to devastating outcomes.
Polanco was placed in the jail’s restrictive housing unit days before her death, cleared by a Rikers doctor who was aware she suffered from a seizure condition, according to documents.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, however, said that decision was not a factor in the investigation.
“The purview of this Office is 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; the purview of this Office is to determine whether that decision rose to the level of criminal behavior,” she said.
“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. We will not be seeking any criminal charges related to this devastating event.”
DOI agreed the actions by Rikers staff did not contribute to Polanco’s death, but the investigation did find that staff did not check on Polanco according to policy.
There was a 47-minute gap between tours of Polanco’s housing area, a violation of rules that say inmates should be checked every 15 minutes at irregular intervals while in punitive segregation, the DOI said.
With the Bronx district attorney and DOI investigations complete, the Department of Correction will pursue internal disciplinary measures “as appropriate,” commissioner Cynthia Brann told PIX11 on Sunday.
“We send our deepest condolences to Layleen’s family and friends. The safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority and we are committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane. Even one death in our custody is one too many,” Brann said.