Layleen Polanco, an Afro-Latinx transgender woman, was twenty-seven years old when prison guards found her dead in solitary confinement on Rikers Island in June of 2019. 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 proved to be her death sentence. Those affiliated with the prison insist that she was not in solitary, but protective custody and insist 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. Gabriel 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 (Arkles). Transgender people are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement and are at risk of suffering negative consequences to their physical and mental health inside and once released from solitary.
Transgender people are disproportionately 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. Depriving trans people from forming communities within prison dehumanizes them even more than a prison already does. 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). 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.”
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.