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N.Y.C. to end solitary confinement after trans woman's Rikers Island death

The decision, announced Monday, comes a year after the death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, who died after having an epileptic seizure in her cell.
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, N.Y. on June 14, 2020.Stephanie Keith / Reuters

New York City will end solitary confinement in its jails following the death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco in isolation at a Rikers Island facility last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday.

The changes go into effect immediately for medically vulnerable prisoners, de Blasio said. A city working group is expected to present a plan for ending the controversial practice altogether by the end of September.

“Let’s take the next step,” he said during a briefing. “We have proven that we can keep jails safe with much less use of solitary confinement punitive segregation.”

De Blasio also noted that the Rikers Island jail complex was slated to close. The New York City Council approved shuttering the notorious facility last fall.

The death of Cubilette-Polanco, 27, has sparked nationwide calls for criminal justice reform. The Afro-Latinx transgender woman was being held on $501 bail dating back to a 2017 prostitution charge. She died last June in solitary confinement following an epileptic seizure, according to a medical examiner’s report.

Earlier this month, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark concluded in an investigation with the New York City Department of Investigation that staffers at the Rose M. Singer Center jail on Rikers Island were not criminally responsible for Cubilette-Polanco's death. Day’s later, Cubilette-Polanco’s family released security footage outside her cell from the day she died that revealed guards knocked on her door and tried to wake her for approximately 90 minutes before calling for help. Moments before approaching an unresponsive Cubilette-Polanco, officers can also be seen laughing.

Last week, the city’s Board of Correction said in an official report that Rikers staff endangered Cubilette-Polanco by, among other things, circumventing a jail psychiatrist who wouldn’t clear her for solitary confinement due to her history of seizures. The Department of Correction wouldn’t house her in the general population with women because she was transgender, the report added. Earlier this week, de Blasio announced that 17 officers have been disciplined for their conduct surrounding Cubilette-Polanco’s death — four of them suspended without pay.

Cubilette-Polanco’s death was “preventable,” Board of Correction Vice Chair Stanley Richards, who will head the working group ending solitary confinement, told NBC News. “She should have never been in solitary confinement. Had we done this work where the mayor said what he said today a year and a half ago, we wouldn't have or we perhaps wouldn't have had a Layleen Polanco.”

Transgender people have long reported being disproportionately isolated because prisons and jails are unsure where to place them. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found a number of instances in which transgender people were placed into solitary confinement under the guise of protection. And according to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black transgender women, like Cubilette-Polanco, are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population.

The committee will aim to disband all forms of in-custody prolonged isolation, including protective custody, Richards said. He wants to see recommendations presented to the Board by the end of September. Jennifer Jones Austin, the board’s chair, said she expects the full NYC Board of Correction to vote on the rules in October. Any rule change would take effect 30 days later.

LGBTQ advocates lauded the news as a sign that community pressure to answer for Cubilette-Polanco’s death was working, but some say the city’s actions still fall short of justice for a beloved community fixture.

Eliel Cruz, director of communications for the New York City Anti-Violence Project, called Monday’s announcement “insufficient.” His group is calling for the officers involved to be fired and an immediate end to solitary confinement for all prisoners. Cruz also pointed out that there are currently no transgender people on the city’s four-person working group.

“I hope that people do not take these crumbs as justice for Layleen,” Cruz said.

“It is a simple mandate to no longer have people in solitary. All you have to do is no longer put people in solitary confinement.”

Jones, however, said the timeline is not a stalling tactic but a needed step to get officers on the same page for a substantial overhaul.

“If you did it tomorrow, but you did not think through those particular issues, people might be at risk,” Jones said. “But more importantly, you're not going to people to really buy in and make the change that is critically necessary.”

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