Mom Blames City for Epilepsy Death in Rikers Solitary

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – The mother of an epileptic transgender woman whose jailhouse death sparked outrage over conditions at Rikers Island brought a federal lawsuit Monday against New York City.

Before her death in June, 27-year-old Layleen Cubilette-Polanco had been incarcerated for nearly two months, unable to afford the $500 bail that would have allowed her to await trial on misdemeanor charges a free woman.

“Layleen is dead because the City of New York and its … personnel failed to provide her safe housing, adequate medical care, and proper accommodation for her disabilities,” the complaint says, filed on behalf of mom Aracelis Polanco by Manhattan attorney David Shanies.

An aerial view of the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. (Photo via U.S. Geological Survey)

Polanco says the staff at Rikers were well aware of her daughter’s medical conditions: she had suffered multiple seizures in the months preceding her death and also lived with schizophrenia — diagnoses that, as noted in the complaint, put her “at heightened risk of death or serious physical harm if placed in segregation.”

On May 30, however, a doctor at the jail did just that, sentenced Cubilette-Polanco to 20 days in “punitive segregation for an alleged disciplinary infraction.”

About a week into that sentence, officers allegedly observed Cubilette-Polanco unresponsive in her cell but did nothing to intervene.

Polanco says it was another two hours before officers entered her daughter’s cell to see if she needed medical attention.

“She had been dead so long that first responders found her body cold to the touch,” the complaint says, emphasizing that people with epilepsy need constant monitoring to ensure that they do not suffocate or otherwise injure themselves in the event of a seizure.

Polanco accuses the city of having ignored warnings from Dr. Homer Venters, the former head of New York City’s correctional health services, about the health risks posed by solitary confinement, particularly for inmates with serious mental illness. 

The suit describes multiple inmate deaths and settlements associated with the city, including a $3.5 million deal just this past May over the death in solitary confinement of Rolando Perez, another inmate with epilepsy.

Polanco counts more than 100 deaths in New York City jails between 2010 and 2016, quoting Venters as saying up to 20% of those deaths were “jail-attributable.” 

The Department of Corrections and the city law department did not immediately return requests for comment Monday, but Avery Cohen, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s deputy press secretary, called Cubilette-Polanco’s death “particularly painful given the long and tragic history of injustice toward the transgender community.”

“Any loss of life in our custody is unacceptable, and we must continue our work towards enacting long-term criminal justice reform,” Cohen said in a statement Monday.

Officials in the Department of Corrections have a documented history of putting transgender inmates in solitary confinement for minor infractions or for no reason at all — sometimes just to fill the beds. 

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