New Footage Shows Prison Staff Laughing Before Seeking Medical Help for Layleen Polanco

Illustration for article titled New Footage Shows Prison Staff Laughing Before Seeking Medical Help for Layleen Polanco
Screenshot: Instagram (@antiviolence

A week after New York City’s investigation into the death of Layleen Polanco found that Rikers Island staffers were not criminally responsible for her death, Polanco’s family’s attorney has released surveillance footage that would appear to undermine that investigation’s findings.


Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender Afro-Latina, was arrested in April of last year and held for nearly two months at the Rose M. Singer Center because she couldn’t afford to pay a $500 bail. Polanco—a member of the city’s ballroom community, where she was known as Layleen Xtravaganza—was in punitive solitary confinement at the time of her death, despite the known risk solitary posed given her epilepsy and schizophrenia. On June 7, 2019, Rikers staff found her unresponsive in her jail cell. She was later pronounced dead.

A medical examiner declared that Polanco had died of an epileptic seizure, a reductive narrative that the Department of Investigations and the Office of the Bronx’s District Attorney echoed in last week’s report finding no criminality in the young woman’s death. But Polanco’s family maintains that Rikers staff withheld critical medical care that might have saved the young woman’s life, and their lawyer points to newly released surveillance camera footage as evidence.

Published by NBC News on Saturday, the footage shows that at least five corrections officers knocked on Polanco’s door in an attempt to check on her in the hour and a half before staff finally went in her cell and decided to seek medical help. Diane Struzzi, the DOI’s Director of Communications, told NBC News that the officers thought Polanco was asleep, a claim that David Shanies, an attorney for Polanco’s family, pushed back on.

“You could see on the video that multiple officers are staring into Layleen’s cell knocking, waiting, calling other people over to look,” he told reporter Kate Sosin. “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 footage also shows what looks to be a horrifying display of callousness on the parts of the Rikers staffers, who can be seen laughing after opening Polanco’s cell door, moments before deciding to seek help.

“It’s the last bit of indifference to her life that we saw and recklessness to a person who obviously needed help,” said Shanies. “The video is the last piece of the puzzle.”


The one-year anniversary of Polanco’s death is only one of the many instances of violence against Black trans people hanging heavy in the news right now. In the past six weeks alone, Nina Pop was found stabbed to death in Missouri, a Florida police officer killed Tony McDade, a group of individuals brutally attacked Iyanna Dior during the early days of the George Floyd protests in Minnesota, Riah Milton of Ohio was shot to death, and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells was murdered in Pennsylvania.

Freelance journalist (GQ, W, Esquire, elsewhere), here on weekends



So many levels of rage right now - and I’m not even watching the video.

Rage Level 1: The arrest. How is sex work still criminal? Also, the fact that she was arrested when an undercover cop asked her for oral sounds like entrapment given that there are probably plenty of out-of-uniform officers who ask for that.

Rage Level 2: The bail. Enough with keeping people in jail because they are poor.

Rage Level 3: The mental illness. Fuck putting people with mental illness in prison.

Rage Level 4: The physical illness. I’ve worked with patients who required round the clock supervision from the medically trained due to their combination of epilepsy and mental illness. How are we locking up people with that level of comorbidity with guards who don’t know a thing! That is so risky! Prisons shouldn’t even want that level of liability!

Rage Level 5: The garbage people. The people who we allow to be in charge of the completely disenfranchised. The people who get to exert power over those who have no voice, who may not be able to afford a phone call out. Fuck those garbage people, and God forgive us for allowing them to go to work everyday.