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 (Manson). Those affiliated with the prison insist that she was not in solitary, but protective custody. They also claim that she had access to the same medical care as the other inmates (Grinberg).
The United States has a prison problem. Even though just “five percent of the world population lives in the U.S., U.S. prisons and jails contain twenty-five percent of the world’s population of imprisoned people” (Arkles). Incarceration affects transgender people at higher rates, especially those that are non-white (Lyden, et al.). Transgender inmates face higher rates of physically and sexual violence (Grant, et al.) as well as time in solitary confinement (Lyden, et al.).
Arkles, an attorney with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, works with transgender individuals to provide legal resources (especially to those incarcerated) and is a prominent activist for transgender rights (Arkles 515). Arkles wrote “Safety and Solidarity Across Gender Lines” in 2008, well before any of the other sources mentioned were published. Andasheva directly cites Arkles to expand on his argument 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.
Them is a magazine that reports on a wide range of topics from fashion to politics, specifically through the lense of the LGBTQ community. Grinberg, writing for the mainstream liberal news outlet CNN, did not make a strong argument against solitary confinement and focused more on laying out the details of Layleen Polanco’s time in the criminal justice system, including a sympathetic perspective towards those affiliated with running Rikers Island. On the other hand, Manson writing for Them used Polanco’s case to make the broader argument that as a society, we should discontinue the practice of solitary confinement because of its cruelty while citing the negative impacts of isolation on transgender people specifically. Manson cites statistical studies like the National Transgender Discrimination Survey and Black & Pink’s “Coming Out of Concrete Closets” to support his claims.
Two survey studies frequently referenced by scholars and journalists are The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) and Black & Pink’s “Coming Out of Concrete Closets.” The NTDS is the first comprehensive collection of data that includes responses from transgender and gender non-conforming people across all of the United States and its territories. The survey asks about almost every facet of life, including prison and police experience. The survey breaks down data in order to analyze how various systems, such as prisons, affect trans people when taking into account race, class, and biological sex. The NTDS records rates of physical and sexual assault amongst trans people in prison as well as access to healthcare, such as hormone therapy. Black & Pink, a non-profit organization dedicated to dismantling the prison industrial complex, conducted a survey in 2014 titled “Coming Out of Concrete Closets” of nearly 1,200 incarcerated LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. asking about their experiences within the prison system. In the words of Black & Pink, the report “aims to share that truth by elevating prisoner voices, stories, and leadership to inspire immediate collective action.” This study offers alarming data about how many transgender inmates are placed in solitary confinement, as well as how factors such as race and mental illness correlate to the length of sentencing and whether or not one goes into solitary willingly.
Stevenson’s nonfiction work Just Mercy details his experiences as a lawyer seeking justice for victims within the prison industrial complex. In chapter 8, he tells the story of Ian Manuel, who was placed in solitary confinement at 13 after being sentenced to life in prison for assault. His term in solitary was meant as protection from those in adult prison that were likely to sexually and physically abuse him, but during his confinement, Manuel became a threat to himself as his mental health deteriorated. Stevenson’s work is in conversation with the previously mentioned sources because cases of transgender women like Layleen Polanco in solitary confinement draw similarities to those like Manuel’s, and are exactly the scenarios that Stevenson would seek justice for.
Taking all of these sources into account, it is evident that 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. I align myself most with Manson, but take a hard abolitionist approach regarding solitary confinement and the prison industrial complex as a whole. I believe that Layleen Polanco should never have been imprisoned in the first place.
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.
Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011, pp. 163-7.
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.