My sister Layleen Polanco died alone in Rikers. Solitary confinement is torture.

America's use of solitary confinement is an international disgrace and a national mark of shame.
By Melania Brown, activist and sister of Layleen Polanco

My sister, Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, died last year at the notorious Rikers Island prison. While in detention, she suffered an epileptic seizure and died alone in solitary confinement. She was only 27 years old — nowhere close to getting to fully live her life. The system killed her, like it kills so many Black people and other people of color.

The system killed her, like it kills so many Black people and other people of color.

To be clear, my sister's death was preventable. The New York City Department of Correction knew about her medical condition and yet, as a new report revealed, pushed to place her in solitary confinement over the objections of medical staff members. They pushed her into solitary in part because they didn't know how to house a transgender woman in Rikers. There, correctional officers laughed as she lay unresponsive nearby instead of getting her the care she needed. Rikers and solitary confinement killed my sister.

At any given time, tens of thousands of people are locked in solitary confinement in the United States, a practice that, when endured for more than a few days, has been classified as torture by the United Nations. America's use of solitary confinement is an international disgrace and a national mark of shame.

But this isn't the first time my family and I have endured pain and loss at the hands of the government. Four years before the death of Layleen, my cousin Miguel Espinal was shot and killed by a uniformed New York police officer. Miguel was unarmed, and no weapon was ever recovered. Today, I'm fighting for him, too.

But really, I'm fighting for the countless people who have been abused behind bars in New York (and around the United States). Andy Henriquez, a 19-year-old from Washington Heights, died in a solitary confinement cell after suffering a tear in his aorta that left him barely able to breathe. He cried out for medical help as he was dying, and other people incarcerated near him yelled and banged on their doors, but no help came. He died alone on the floor of his cell.

Kalief Browder was accused of stealing a backpack when he was 16 years old and was sent to Rikers Island to await a trial that never happened. He spent a hard three years in Rikers, the majority of it in solitary confinement. Not long after prosecutors dropped all charges against him and he was released, Kalief died by suicide. He couldn't escape the trauma of his time in solitary and all he'd experienced behind bars.

Davon Washington thought he was going to die when he was brutally beaten and locked in solitary confinement in an upstate New York jail. City officials transferred him from Rikers to a jail in Albany to avoid recent restrictions on placing young people in solitary. Guards pummeled Davon, who had been accused of attacking a guard.

They kill us out here and in cages behind bars. The prison system uses solitary confinement to break us down and mentally abuse us. It must stop. This is what the jail and prison system does to Black and brown people.

The prison system uses solitary confinement to break us down and mentally abuse us. It must stop. This is what the jail and prison system does to Black and brown people.

Late last month, after a year of rallies in support of my family and increased demands from advocacy organizations and the community, Mayor Bill de Blasio disciplined 17 Rikers staff in connection with my sister's death. In addition, he said New York City intends to end solitary confinement for all those with serious medical conditions immediately (something the city was already supposed to have been doing under existing rules) and to establish a work group to provide recommendations to end it for all by the fall.

This isn't good enough. It's been over a year since my baby sister died, and not a day goes by when I don't think about her. After the community outcry following Layleen's death, the New York City Board of Correction's jails oversight body announced last year they it issue rules to limit solitary. A year later, there have been no changes in the city or the state, and we simply get another announcement.

We can't wait any longer for justice for Layleen and the countless others — many of whom we don't even know about — who were traumatized and even killed by the state-sanctioned torture that is solitary confinement. New York City and New York state need to end solitary confinement today.

Related

The mayor said my sister deserves justice. But real justice for my sister means firing all of the Rikers staff whose negligence and indifference killed her. #JusticeforLayleen means never allowing anyone else to suffer what she suffered. It means passing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act in New York, which has majority support in both houses of the Legislature. The Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker must bring HALT to a vote, and the governor must sign it into law.

Justice for my sister means New York City, the mayor, the Board of Correction, and the city council each have the opportunity, authority, and responsibility to go further and must fully eliminate solitary confinement in all its forms right now.

Justice for my sister is undoing bail reform rollbacks and releasing people from jail during this era of COVID-19. Justice for my sister is repealing the so-called walking while trans law, a loitering law that law enforcement uses to profile and target Black trans and cisgender women for existing in public. Anything less is just lip service.

Related

We have to stand up for what is right. As we fight for the people abused by police on the sidewalk or in their own homes, we cannot forget the people behind bars, in cages, in this city and state. We need to keep protesting. We need to be seen and heard. Black trans lives matter. My sister's life mattered. I will keep spreading my sister's word, and we all must demand that not one more person is tortured to death, by solitary or otherwise.

Melania Brown