A trans inmate in the US was allegedly ignored by prison guards for hours before her death, it has been alleged.
Layleen Polanco was found unresponsive in her solitary confinement cell in Rikers Island Jail on 7 June.
A fellow inmate alleges that although Polanco did not respond to calls from prison officials, guards did not check on her for over two hours, the New York Post reports.
Polanco was declared dead at 3:45pm on 7 June, according to the Department of Correction (DOC).
Polanco was being held in solitary confinement after brawling with another inmate.
The 27-year-old had been jailed for an altercation with a taxi driver in April. She also faced an open warrant from prostitution and low-level drug charges, but could not make the $500 bail.
Polanco’s death has outraged LGBTI rights activists in the US. Many have said her case highlights the urgent need for criminal justice reform.
Found unresponsive at around 2:50pm
Allegations that prison officials did not check on Polanco come from a fellow Rikers inmate.
The inmate claims to have witnessed the lead-up to Polanco’s death while confined in a cell near her’s.
Polanco received lunch at around noon, the inmate alleges, before a guard knocked on Polanco’s door at 1pm but did not get a response. The guard said ‘Must be asleep’ and moved on, according to the inmate.
The inmate claims that at about 1:30pm, a psychiatrist arrived to ask inmates if they wished to take part in an art therapy session.
The psychiatrist also did not receive a response from Polanco; he asked the guards to check in on her, though, according to the inmate, none did.
It was only at around 2:50pm when guards opened Polanco’s cell door where they found her unresponsive.
Medics were then called and tried to revive Polanco for about an hour before she was declared dead.
‘I don’t think the Medical Examiner should be making that kind of determination at this stage’
A DOC spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations from Polanco’s fellow inmate.
The spokesperson said: ‘We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority.’
The Medical Examiner is yet to confirm the cause of death, though has ruled out violence as a possibility.
However, David Shanies, a lawyer for Polanco’s family, says Polanco had bruising on her face when he saw her body on Wednesday (12 June).
Shanies said he did not know the cause of the wounds, though he said that Polanco had epilepsy.
‘If a person who has a seizure disorder gets punched in the face, can you say that that could not have contributed to a seizure that ultimately caused her death?’ Shanies said.
‘I’m not a neurologist, but I don’t think a spokesperson for the [Medical Examiner] should be making that kind of determination at this stage.’
The city Medical Examiner has not commented further on the matter.
Calls for reform
Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Manhatten to pay tribute to Polanco, and to stand in solidarity with her family and the wider LGBTI community on Monday (10 June).
Polanco’s death has caused an uproar from a number of trans rights advocates, with many calling for answers as to how she died.
Her death has also led to renewed calls for reforms to the criminal justice system.
Campaigners say that the current system directly affects the members of society who are poorer or more marginalized. This includes trans women of color, who are disproportionately affected by poverty and drug use in the US.
Shanies said that Polanco should not have been in jail in the first place.
‘Her death was easily avoidable and completely unnecessary, and it reflects a lack of care about transgender lives in our society and in this city,’ he said.
Polanco’s death has also furthered criticism of the cash bail system. Campaigners say the system further punishes those on low incomes who face jail if they cannot afford bail money.
While the cash bail system is due to cease effect in New York, this will not be until January 2020. The system continues to be used in various other states in the US.
Additionally, some campaigners have called for the closure of Rikers Island due to the jail’s poor record. Polanco is the seventh inmate to die in the jail since 2012.
‘She was cool, and funny too’
Pose actor Indya Moore took to Instagram to write a heartfelt statement in remembrance of Polanco, who Moore says they knew while growing up.
‘I remember desiring to be beautiful like her. She was cool, and funny too,’ Moore posted on the social media account.
Moore also wrote about the levels of violence facing trans women in the post. They went on to call out the Trump administration for rolling back numerous trans rights in the US.
Fellow trans actress Laverne Cox has also used social media to express her remorse and anger over the levels of violence facing trans people.
Cox broke down in tears over the number of trans murders in a video she posted on Instagram in May.
‘It’s insanely painful to keep reading reports of trans folks being murdered,’ she wrote the caption.