17 Rikers Island guards face disciplinary action in transgender woman’s death

The inmate, Layleen Polanco, suffered an epileptic seizure in June 2019 and died in solitary confinement.

Seventeen corrections officers in New York City will face disciplinary action in connection with the death of a transgender woman who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island.

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The punishment -- which included immediate suspensions for three officers and a captain-- follows an internal investigation into the death of Layleen Polanco, 27, in June 2019.

Transgender woman Layleen Polanco, 27, suffered an epileptic seizure and died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island in June 2019. 

Transgender woman Layleen Polanco, 27, suffered an epileptic seizure and died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island in June 2019. 

Polanco had been at Rikers for two months while awaiting trial for misdemeanor assault because she was unable to pay her $500 bail.

A city Department of Investigation probe didn't find any evidence that officers contributed to her death from an epileptic seizure, but she was not checked on for almost an hour in violation of DOC policy that requires solitary confinement cells to be checked every 15 minutes.

In this Jan. 28, 2016, file photo, the interior of a solitary confinement cell at New York's Rikers Island jail is shown. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

In this Jan. 28, 2016, file photo, the interior of a solitary confinement cell at New York's Rikers Island jail is shown. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

"We are committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane," DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said. "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."

The president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association decried the punishments and blamed Brann for Polanco's death.

"If there is anyone who should be held responsible for the death of Layleen Polanco, it's Commissioner Brann and her inept managers," he said in a statement. "We will vigorously fight these suspensions and refuse to allow this city to demonize correction officers."

The officers involved were spared criminal charges by the Bronx District Attorney's Office earlier in June.

"What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

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Polanco's family attorney, David Shanies, said the city's decision was only a small step in changing the system.

“Suspending or even firing individual employees will not save the next Layleen from dying," he said in a statement. “We need to treat trans women as women. We need to end abusive solitary confinement. We need to treat people in jail as humans deserving safety and dignity."