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New York City prison guards laughed & didn’t help as a transgender woman died in her cell

Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, transgender, dead, Riker's Island, lawsuit
Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-PolancoPhoto: Facebook

The family of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender member of New York City’s legendary ballroom family, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city following her death in solitary confinement on New York’s Rikers Island prison.

Cubilette-Polanco had been in prison since April 2019 after being unable to pay a $500 bail related to a 2017 prostitution charge. She was placed in isolation for 20 days after allegedly assaulting another inmate and fighting against a corrections officer.

Related: Trump administration will allow health care providers to discriminate against transgender people

Despite having a history of schizophrenia and epilepsy (controlled by medication) and despite having had two seizures while in custody at Riker’s, on May 30, 2019, a prison doctor cleared her for placement in isolation.

But while prison rules dictate that guards must check on inmates in solitary confinement once every 15 minutes, on the day she died, the guards didn’t.

Video footage released by the woman’s families’ lawyer shows a 45-minute gap on June 7, 2019 between the time that guards checked on her at 1:42 p.m. and then did so again at 2:27 p.m.. At 2:45 p.m., officers opened her door and began to call out her name, At 2:46 p.m., an officer laughs outside her cell.

At 2:48 p.m., officers entered the cell, putting on gloves and carried in a defibrillator. At 2:53 p.m., an officer exited the cell and began gagging as if to hold back vomit. At 2:55 p.m., the medical staff arrived with a bodyboard to transport her body. She was declared dead at 3:45 p.m..

Here is video footage of officers loitering outside of the woman’s cell:

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark’s office released an official report detailing the findings of a six-month investigation about Cubilette-Polanco’s death. It states that when guards first checked on her at 12:50 p.m., they thought she was sleeping, “under the blankets, with her head towards the wall closest to her face.” When they checked again at 1:4o p.m., guards believed she “was breathing and that she was asleep with headphones in.”

When they eventually checked on her again soon after 2:40 p.m.,  “They found Ms. Polanco in the bed and turned her over…. unresponsive” with vomit on her face and not breathing.

Clark’s report found no basis for criminally prosecuting the officers involved in the inmate’s death. However, in a statement, Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said her department would pursue internal disciplinary measures, according to NBC News.

“The safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority, and we are committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane,” Brann said. “Even one death in our custody is one too many.”

“It was horrifying for the family to see this footage,” said David Shanies, the lawyer representing Cubilette-Polanco’s family. “They were completely unprepared for what they saw. They all broke into hysterical crying, understandably. And to this day, Layleen’s mother is haunted by the images of the guard laughing at her daughter.”

Shanies also said he doesn’t believe the guards’ explanation that they thought she was asleep.

“You could see on the video that multiple officers are staring into Layleen’s cell knocking, waiting, calling other people over to look,” he said. “At certain points, people spend five to 10 minutes just staring through the window into the cell. It’s not something that you do for somebody who you think is asleep.”

The pro-LGBTQ organization, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, wants the officers and their captain to be fired, an end to solitary confinement in New York City jails, a repeal of “provisions relating to loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense,” and to maintain state’s recent bail reform measures.

Indya Moore, the transgender actor who appears in the ballroom drama Pose, spoke at a rally demanding justice for Cubilette-Polanco’s death. She was a friend of hers.

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