[Pnews] How New York’s Criminal Justice System Killed a Transgender Woman at Rikers Island

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jun 13 15:05:38 EDT 2019


  How New York’s Criminal Justice System Killed a Transgender Woman at
  Rikers Island

Natasha Lennard - June 13, 2019

_Too little is_ known about the death of Layleen Polanco. This we know: 
The 27-year-old Afro-Latina transgender woman was found dead in solitary 
<https://thecity.nyc/2019/06/woman-who-died-at-rikers-island-was-in-solitary.html> last 
Friday afternoon at Rikers Island Jail. Polanco was being held on $500 
bail owing to misdemeanor charges for a prostitution-related offense, in 
addition to the lowest-level drug charge. The New York medical examiner 
has not yet determined the cause of her death.

    Polanco’s death sits at the intersection of some of the criminal
    justice system’s worst excesses.

These sparse details alone are enough to know that Polanco’s death sits 
at the intersection of some of the criminal justice system’s worst 
excesses: the criminalization of sex workers and the policing of trans 
women of color that it entails; the cash bail system; the use of 
solitary confinement; and the fact that institutions like Rikers exist 
at all.

“Layleen’s interactions with the criminal legal system exemplify the 
ways in which our state sanctions violence against trans and gender 
non-confirming communities of color,” said a statement 
<https://twitter.com/DecrimNY/status/1138510992969818114/photo/2> from 
Decrim NY, a coalition working toward the full decriminalization of 
consensual sex work in New York state. “Polanco’s death was caused by an 
all-too-common overlap of three aspects of the criminal legal system: 
She was criminalized for sex work. She was held on $500 bail for 
misdemeanor charges. And she was placed in solitary confinement.”

On Monday night 
hundreds of people gathered in downtown Manhattan to pay tribute to 
Polanco and to join in her family and the broader LGBTQ+ community’s 
calls for answers and justice. Polanco, also known as Layleen 
Xtravaganza, was a member of the iconic New York ballroom family, House 
of Xtravaganza 
Her death, coinciding with celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the 
Stonewall Uprising 
stands as a stark reminder that the struggle goes on to end state 
violence against trans and queer lives.

“The fact that we don’t have her here right now pisses me the fuck off, 
and the fact that they left her and neglected her is not right,” said 
actress and model Gisele Alicea, the mother of the House of Xtravaganza, 
on Monday night. According to statements from David Shanies, Polanco’s 
attorney, the staff at Rikers knew that Polanco had a serious seizure 

_The New York_ City Department of Correction said it is conducting a 
“full investigation” into what happened to Polanco in its facility. The 
fact remains, however, that the young woman should never have been 
incarcerated in the first place.

In April 
the New York State Legislature passed a bill to end cash bail for most 
misdemeanor and low-level offenses, but the law doesn’t go into effect 
until January 2020. Polanco’s death highlighted the urgency of 
abolishing the cash bail system nationwide and ensuring that such laws 
are properly enacted.

    The timing of Polanco’s death is rife with grim ironies.

That a judge, knowing full well that legislation had been passed to end 
cash bail for these offenses, would nonetheless incarcerate a person 
like Polanco for failing to pay bail speaks to the cruelty of judicial 

The timing of Polanco’s death is rife with other grim ironies. On Monday 
— three days after Polanco’s death and the same day that New Yorkers 
rallied in her memory — progressive state lawmakers introduced 
the nation’s most robust bill for the decriminalization of sex work. If 
passed, the bill — the work of years of sex worker rights organizing and 
advocacy to build previously unthinkable political will for reform — 
would make New York the first state to fully decriminalize consensual 
sex work. It would put an end to cases like Polanco’s, who was arrested 
by an undercover cop in a prostitution sting in 2017.

Transgender women — particularly transgender women of color — 
disproportionately turn to sex work, in the face of grave discrimination 
in other industries. Analysis 
by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey in 2015 found that of 
6,400 transgender individuals asked, 40 percent of black or black 
multiracial respondents and 33 percent of Latinx-identified respondents 
had participated in the sex trade.

Police nationwide have made a habit 
of targeting trans women of color for prostitution arrests, stings, and 
bogus charges like “loitering for prostitution.” While some locales have 
instituted partial decriminalization and programs like diversion courts 
to avoid the appearance of draconian policies, cases like Polanco’s give 
the lie to claims that these approaches do not punish sex workers. 
Polanco, for instance, was first sent to human trafficking court after 
her arrest, but a warrant was issued for her to be taken into custody 
again after she missed court dates.

“[A]ll of these supposed reforms didn’t do anything for Layleen,” said 
Jessica Peñaranda, director of movement building at the Sex Workers 
Project at the Urban Justice Center and a Decrim NY steering committee 
member, in a statement. “The clients we serve view diversion court and 
criminal court as one in the same: The trauma and violence of 
interacting with court officers, police officers, judges and district 
attorneys who have authority to send you to jail, all of that is no 

Only full decriminalization, like in the new proposed bill, removes 
criminal legal coercion from sex workers’ lives — something that can’t 
be said often enough 
Without economic justice and an end to transphobic persecution, there 
will still be no justice for women like Polanco. But full sex work 
decriminalization would allow the space for those struggles to continue 
without the added threat of police and carceral violence.

_At the end_ of April, in recognition of the anniversary of the 
Stonewall riots, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced 
that the city would erect a monument in honor of the transgender 
activists and Stonewall uprising leaders Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia 
Rivera. The official recognition of these liberation fighters is welcome 
and long overdue. “Transgender and nonbinary communities are reeling 
from violent and discriminatory attacks across the country,” de Blasio 
said during his announcement. “Here in New York City, we are sending a 
clear message: We see you for who you are, we celebrate you, and we will 
protect you.”

Yet it was New York City institutions that killed Layleen Polanco 
Xtravaganza — and will continue to destroy the lives of transgender 
women of color while sex work is criminalized, trans communities are 
stigmatized, and jails and prisons remain full of the poor and persecuted.

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863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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