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17 corrections officers to be disciplined in trans woman's death at Rikers Island jail

Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco died last June while in solitary confinement, where she had been placed over the objections of at least one doctor.
Image: People participate in a Black Trans Lives Matter rally
A person holds up a picture of Layleen Polanco, a transgender person who died at the Rikers Island prison, during a Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn, New York on June 14, 2020.Stephanie Keith / Reuters

More than a dozen New York City Department of Correction officers will be disciplined for their conduct surrounding the death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, 27, a transgender woman who died last year while in solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail.

Three officers and one captain will be suspended without pay immediately, the department said in a statement Friday. It was not immediately clear what disciplinary actions the remaining 13 officers would face.

The announcement comes several weeks after Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark declined to file charges following a six-month investigation into the circumstances of Cubilette-Polanco’s death.

"We are committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane," Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in a statement. "Even one death in our custody is one too many and this swift and fair determination on internal discipline makes clear that the safety and well-being of people in our custody remains our top priority."

Cubilette-Polanco died in June 2019 after being placed in solitary confinement despite the objections of at least one doctor due to her history of seizures.

In declining to file criminal charges, Clark said in a statement that "the purview of this office is not to determine whether it was a wrong decision" to put Cubilette-Polanco in solitary confinement. Instead, it was the district attorney's role to "determine whether that decision rose to the level of criminal behavior."

After an "in-depth investigation," Clark's office determined that it would unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that officers committed a crime that caused Cubilette-Polanco's death.

Several weeks before she died, Cubilette-Polanco had been hospitalized at the Elmhurst Hospital Prison Ward for psychiatric care after “showing radical changes in behavior” including shouting, crying, rolling around on the floor, talking to herself, expressing suicidal thoughts and charging at a jail guard, according to a Board of Correction report.

After returning to Rikers Island, jail staff tried to get her sent to restrictive housing, or solitary confinement, as a punishment for charging at the guard, according to the report. However, a psychiatrist “verbally stated that due to [her] medical history as it pertains to seizure disorder, that he would not be able to authorized [sic] a cell housing placement” in a restrictive housing unit.

Cubilette-Polanco died after suffering an epileptic seizure, according to the medical examiner’s report.

“The death of Layleen Polanco was an incredibly painful moment for our city,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Friday. “What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability.”