Layleen Polanco, an Afro-Latinx transgender woman, was twenty-seven years old when prison guards found her dead in solitary confinement on Rikers Island. Medical professionals later confirmed that her death was caused by her epilepsy (Grinberg). Her family and supporters highlight that the prison was well aware of her condition and that solitary confinement was her death sentence. Those affiliated with the prison insist that she was not in solitary, but protective custody and claim that she had access to the same medical care as the other inmates (Manson). Polanco is not the first transgender person to suffer in solitary confinement because of her gender identity. Arkles, an attorney with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, argues that solitary confinement does not protect transgender people against violence in prison, is unfairly mandated, and the excessively long terms that transgender people serve in solitary have devastating mental and physical health effects. Transgender people are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement and are at greater risk of suffering negative consequences to their physical and mental health inside and once released from solitary.
Solitary confinement, as Faroat Andasheva describes, is a practice used in prisons that places inmates in a small room where they experience minute to zero contact with other humans (Andasheva 125). Those in solitary cannot access personal belongings, educational materials, or recreational activities, which drives inmates in isolation to experience “extreme anxiety, hallucinations, violent fantasies, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, and increased tendency to inflict self-harm” (125). Unsurprisingly, the United Nations considers prolonged solitary confinement as torture (Manson). How can a torturous practice possibly protect the most vulnerable inmates from harm?
Some transgender inmates request to be placed in solitary, but half are admitted involuntarily (Lyden, et al.). In many cases of involuntary admission, transgender people are placed in solitary confinement under the veil of “protection” from other prisoners (Lyden, et al.). In actuality, solitary confinement creates harm to inmates’ health that far outweighs any perceived protection. By forcing trans people into solitary confinement, they lose the necessary human interaction that people need. Building community within prison is necessary for survival, and solitary confinement prevents relationships from forming (Arkles). Depriving trans people from forming communities within prison dehumanizes them even more than a prison already does.
In Polanco’s case, solitary confinement had such an effect on her physical health that she died in custody (Manson). The lack of medical attention from guards caused her epileptic attack to not be treated, and she suffered the most severe possible consequence (Grinberg). While I hypothesize that the lack of attention to Polanco was motivated by racism and transphobia, her story could have happened to anyone. When someone is placed in solitary confinement, they become “out of sight, out of mind.”
Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy uncovers that placing people in solitary confinement for “protection” is not unique to transgender people. In one chapter, Stevenson explains the case of Ian Manuel, a thirteen year old that was sent to an adult prison with a life sentence. Since juveniles in adult prisons are “five times more likely to be victims of sexual assault,” the prison officials elected to place him in solitary confinement to protect him from the adult male inmates (Stevenson 152). Ian spent eighteen years in an isolated cage, causing him to attempt suicide multiple times and practice self-mutilation (153). Prison officials and the judicial system deemed it appropriate to place Manuel in isolation to deter the psychological distress from potential sexual abuse, but solitary confinement had such an intense negative impact that Manuel was driven to attempt to end his life. The overarching question is why Manuel was sentenced to life in an adult prison when he was thirteen years old in the first place, but when he arrived, why could the prison authorities not provide him competent protection that would still allow him social interaction, consistent exercise, time outdoors, and activities granted to other prisoners? Solitary failed to protect Ian Manuel and created irreparable damage to his physical and mental well-being.
I am an advocate for abolishing solitary confinement as a practice, and ultimately implementing an alternative route for justice outside of the prison industrial complex to make incarceration obsolete.
Andasheva, Faroat. “Aren’t I a Woman: Deconstructing Sex Discrimination and Freeing Transgender Women from Solitary Confinement Comments.” FIU Law Review, vol. 12, no. 1, 2017 2016, pp. 117–50.
Arkles, Gabriel. “Safety and Solidarity Across Gender Lines: Rethinking Segregation of Transgender People in Detention Symposium – Intersections of Transgender Lives and the Law.” Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, vol. 18, no. 2, 2009 2008, pp. 515–60.
Grinberg, Emanuella. “Layleen Polanco Died of Complications from Epilepsy at Riker’s Island, Autopsy Results Show.” CNN, 31 July 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/31/us/layleen-polanco-rikers-island-autopsy/index.html.
Lyden, Jason, Kamaria Carrington, Hana Low, Reed Miller, and Mahsa Yazdy. “Coming Out of Concrete Closets: A Report on Black and Pink’s National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey.” Black and Pink, 21 October 2015, version 2.
Manson, Josh. “Layleen Polanco’s Death Proves the Cruelty of Solitary Confinement.” Them., 17 July 2019, https://www.them.us/story/trans-incarceration-crisis.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau, 2014.