Mayor and Bronx DA Clark at odds in Layleen Polanco solitary confinement death at Rikers

Mayor overrules Clark in solitary confinement death at Rikers
File photo

In 2019, Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman, died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. However, District Attorney Darcel Clark and Mayor Bill de Blasio are at odds over who is at fault.

While Clark found no guards were responsible for the death, the mayor felt differently about the situation. On Friday, he announced that 17 members of the Corrections Department will face departmental charges for Polanco’s death.

“The death of Layleen Polanco was an incredibly painful moment for our city,” de Blasio said. “What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability.”

A year ago, 27-year-old Polanco was in jail for 20 days for sex work and drug possession. While in jail, Polanco got into a fight and was placed in solitary confinement, where she was later found dead in her cell.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been leading the charge against solitary confinement and justice for Polanco. On Friday, she called for the dismissal of the corrections officers involved in the death of Polanco and reiterated her demand  for an end to solitary confinement and cash bail.

“The treatment of Layleen Polanco inside Rikers is a moral travesty and, as the Board of Corrections report has now confirmed, in direct violation of corrections policy,” AOC said in a statement. ” The corrections officers involved must be fired, and we must end solitary confinement and divest from prisons.”

This statement follows the release of a Board of Corrections’ report on Polanco’s death, which found that she was placed in solitary against a physician’s advice and the city’s transgender corrections housing policy contributed to the decision to place her in solitary confinement. A recently released video also shows guards laughing outside Polanco’s cell shortly before her death and indicates that officers tried to wake her for approximately an hour and a half before calling for help.

After a six-month investigation, DA Clark found no criminality was involved in her death. On June 5, she announced her office’s findings.

“A 27-year-old woman died in custody in a city jail, and the circumstances of her death warranted a full and thorough investigation,” Clark said. “Layleen Polanco died from an epileptic seizure. Her family and friends along with the public deserved to know whether anything else played a role in her death. It is an absolute tragedy that Ms. Polanco died so young.”

On June 7, 2019, she was found unresponsive inside of her cell by correction officers and was later pronounced dead. An autopsy report issued by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Aug. 2, 2019 concluded that Polanco’s death was natural and the cause was “sudden unexpected death in epilepsy.”

“After an in-depth investigation by my Public Integrity Bureau, we have concluded that we would be unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any individual committed any crime associated with Ms. Polanco’s demise,” Clark continued. “We will not be seeking any criminal charges related to this devastating event.”

Over the course of six months the Public Integrity Bureau investigated not only the events of June 7, 2019, but the events leading up to that date.

The office issued subpoenas to numerous hospitals and health care providers, receiving more than a thousand pages of medical records. New York City Department of Correction records and Westchester County Department of Correction records were collected and analyzed. The office also interviewed correction officers and incarcerated people, both present and not present on June 7, 2019, as well as medical staff who responded on June 7, 2019.

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