NEW YORK (PIX11) — In the three years since Layleen Polanco’s family got the devastating news that she’d died at the Rikers Island jail facility, conditions have not changed for the better, her family said.
Polanco, a transgender woman, was arrested in April of 2019. She was 27 and died behind bars on June 7, 2019.
“My sister was taken from me by the negligence of the government,” Melania Brown said through tears. “They weren’t doing their job and instead of helping my sister, they stood by her door, just steps away, and watched her slip away.”
Brown picked up a microphone at a rally three days after Polanco’s death to “make sure my sister got the proper justice.” But in the years since, Brown said she hasn’t seen improvements in Department of Correction facilities despite promises from officials for change.
“It was just all talk with no intentions behind it,” she said.
Some conditions for transgender detainees have actually worsened in recent months, advocates said. While there had been some improvements in people being housed according to their gender identity, advocates said the Department of Correction increasingly seems to be ignoring requests in recent months.
Transgender women are often housed in men’s jails, Deborah Lolai, supervisor of the LGBTQ Defense Project at Bronx Defenders said. Transgender men are often housed in women’s facilities. In that case, it’s often the preference of the incarcerated individual.
“Trans men are put in this position where they need to choose between their safety and their dignity,” Lolai said. “If they are housed in the men’s facility, their safety is compromised, but when they’re housed in the women’s facility, their mental health and emotional well-being is disregarded.”
DOC housing based on gender identity launched in 2018. The DOC also created Special Consideration Housing Units (SCU) for those at heightened risk of sexual victimization; members of the LGBTQ+ community are considered vulnerable individuals who can be housed in SCU. Per the DOC, detainees can apply to be housed in the SCU or gender-aligned housing at any point during the intake process or during their incarceration.
But Erin Beth Harrist with the LGBTQ+ Law and Policy Unit of the Legal Aid Society said the DOC is not transparent about how they make their housing decisions. Advocates said some of the people making the decisions are transphobic.
“They need to make sure that people who are making the decisions are actually knowledgeable,” Harrist said.
Brown previously told PIX11 that she believes her sister — who suffered from epilepsy — was victimized because of her gender status.
“A lot of the reasons why I believe that she was placed there (in restrictive housing) was because they did not know how to house her because she was transgender,” Brown said. “Because she was who she was. It caused her death.”
The Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law, plays a role in housing determination for transgender detainees, Lolai said. People at correctional facilities will look at an inmate’s appearance as a factor. Many of those individuals are not able to afford gender-affirming care, so their appearance may not match their gender identity.
“What they’re doing is denying a huge portion of the trans community safe housing because they were too poor to access gender-affirming medical care, gender-affirming clothes,” Lolai said.
Once they’re in custody, transgender individuals face harassment from both fellow detainees and correction officers, Harrist and Lolai said. They also face increased rates of violence and sexual harassment.
“It’s particularly bad for trans women who they refuse to house in women’s facilities,” Harrist said.
Sometimes an incarcerated individual’s gender identity is even used against them as punishment, Lolai said. She said there have been instances when transgender people housed correctly have been moved to facilities that don’t match their gender identity after infractions.
Brown, Harrist and Lolai are all calling for changes. Brown wants DOC Commissioner Louis Molina to spend less time behind his desk and more time in correctional facilities.
“He needs to do better,” Brown said. “He can do better, he can help and make sure no other family goes through what my family is going through.”
Molina took over the job as head of DOC once Mayor Eric Adams was sworn in. With Rikers dealing with a years-long crisis, he’s faced difficult conditions.
“I came to this agency with a goal of making the jails safer for everyone and I know how difficult it is for families to cope when their loved one is incarcerated,” he said. “We are improving conditions that have plagued Rikers Island for years, and are holding all individuals, including staff, accountable when they jeopardize the wellbeing of others. We are dedicated to building the trust of families and are doing all that we can to ensure that their loved ones remain unharmed while in our care.”
Brown implored him to be hands-on as he leads city jails. She also wants correction officers to be better trained. Though she questioned the need for more correction officers, Brown said she wants to make “sure old ones aren’t influencing new ones to torture individuals.”
After Polanco’s death, Elizabeth Munsky joined the DOC in the new role of director of LGBTQ+ Initiatives. The NYC DOC is one of the only correctional systems in the county with a team dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues. Munsky had actually accepted the job as team head before Polanco’s death but didn’t start until afterward, Gay City News reported at the time.
The LGBTQ+ Initiatives office needs to be built out and strengthened, Harrist said. While she said there’s some amazing staff there, Harrist feels the DOC doesn’t give them the respect and power they need.
Some change needs to happen before people even end up being incarcerated, advocates said. Transgender individuals face increased discrimination when it comes to housing and employment. Those issues can lead some to sex work and drugs, which can end in arrests and incarceration.
“We just don’t give, as a society, trans people the resources and opportunities they need to avoid incarceration,” Lolai said.
Polanco was arrested on a prostitution charge. She then missed a court date and was sent to Rikers because she couldn’t afford $500 bail.
Affording bail is a common issue for transgender individuals after arrests, Lolai said. Many don’t have familial support to help pay bail.
Before her death, Polanco was vibrant, loving and caring, Brown said. On Tuesday, three years to the day after Polanco’s death, Brown said she’d want people to remember her sister’s heart.
“I want them to remember her story and to go out there and fight for others,” she said.