Layleen Polanco’s Family Settles Lawsuit Against NYC for $5.9 Million

"This being the largest settlement in the city’s history for a death in jail should serve as a powerful statement that trans lives matter."

The family of Layleen Polanco, a young transgender woman of color who died at Rikers Island last year, is finally seeing some justice.

Polanco’s relatives have settled a federal lawsuit against the city of New York for $5.9 million, The City reports. The multimillion-dollar settlement marks a record high for a case involving an inmate who died in a New York City jail.

“This settlement will allow Layleen’s family to move forward without enduring years of protracted litigation and reliving their trauma,” David Shanies, the family’s attorney, said in a statement to The City. “This being the largest settlement in the city’s history for a death in jail should serve as a powerful statement that trans lives matter.”

As NewNowNext previously reported, Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza died in June 2019 after being placed in a single-person cell for nine days. The young trans woman—a member of NYC’s famed House of Xtravaganza—was being held at Rikers on $500 bail for misdemeanor charges. An autopsy of her body revealed that Polanco died of “sudden unexplained death in epilepsy (SUDEP).” She was just 27 years old.

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A memorial outside of New York City’s Stonewall Inn honors Polanco.

Polanco’s untimely death in state custody was immediately labeled suspicious by her family, friends, and LGBTQ activists. Last August, Polanco’s mother, Aracelis Polanco, filed a lawsuit against NYC alleging that corrections officers at Rikers failed to monitor her daughter’s schizophrenia and epilepsy. Posters emblazoned with “Justice for Layleen” were common at Black Lives Matter protests and rallies citywide, including June’s rally for Black trans lives in Brooklyn. Some 15,000 New Yorkers turned out to support the cause, and members of Layleen’s family even gave a rousing speech in her memory.

Evidence later emerged that supported the Polancos’ claims, too. As NBC News reported earlier this summer, security footage from outside Layleen’s cell showed prison guards trying to wake her for an hour and a half before seeking medical attention. Her death would go on to prompt NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio to change the city’s rules for solitary confinement.

In a statement to The City, Layleen’s sister, Melania Brown, said she still wants to see the corrections officers involved in Layleen’s death fired from their jobs.

“This is just the beginning of justice for my sister, this is not even close to being justice for her,” she added. “Justice would be holding those people who had something to do with my sister’s death accountable for their actions.”

Brown’s ask was echoed by the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), which published an additional list of demands in the wake of Layleen’s tragic death. That list includes ending solitary confinement in NYC jails, repealing the state’s #WalkingWhileTrans ban, asking the state to stop its 2020 bail reform rollbacks, and asking to Department of Corrections to create and maintain a database of correction officers who have committed misconduct.

“The neglect and utter disregard for Layleen’s life by prison officials is reprehensible,” Beverly Tillery, AVP’s executive director, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we know what happened to Layleen is reflective of thousands of transgender people who are regularly subjected to neglect and violence and stripped of their humanity within our nation’s jails and prisons. These acts of state violence have to stop and we are calling on our city and state officials to take action now to ensure accountability for Layleen’s tragic death, and to end the criminalization and disproportionate incarceration and abuse of transgender New Yorkers.”

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.