My baby sister Layleen Polanco was an Afro-Latina transgender woman. The New York City Department of Correction killed her on June 7, 2019. Despite medical objections, city officials locked Layleen in solitary confinement because of her gender identity and left her there to die of a seizure. I watched a video of Layleen going into a solitary confinement cell and coming out in a body bag. I now have to wear her around my neck as ashes.
As we mark this year’s Trans Day of Remembrance and honor all trans people who have been killed, I am asking New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to honor my baby sister by bringing Council legislation to a vote to finally end solitary confinement. Speaker Johnson, you have been a champion for ending solitary confinement and replacing it with alternative forms of separation that involve 14 hours a day of real out-of-cell engagement and that are proven to be more effective at ensuring everyone’s health, well-being, and safety.
Please take action now to make real what you have championed. Now is the moment. I am asking you to look deep into yourself, your values, and your conscience to do what is right and end this barbaric, racist, and deadly practice.
Layleen, along with Kalief Browder, Bradley Ballard, Jason Echevarria, and Andy Henriquez, are just a few of the countless people — predominantly poor Black and Brown people — who have been tortured and killed by solitary in this city’s jails. Fourteen people have died preventable deaths this year alone — not all from solitary, but all from a racist and abusive jail system that devalues and denies the humanity of people in the city’s custody. In August, for example, Brandon Rodriguez died while being locked in solitary confinement in a shower cell (where people regularly were locked without a toilet and amidst their own feces). This is beyond a crisis. The people in charge are failing and the New York City Council has an opportunity right now to at least do this one piece fully in your control to alleviate some of the suffering and death.
Invoking my sister’s name and Kalief Browder’s name, the Mayor promised to end solitary confinement a year and a half ago and then this past June he and the Department of Correction and Board of Correction claimed they were ending solitary, including all over national news. Yet they continue to use various forms of solitary confinement by another name — as they tragically did with Brandon Rodriguez — and plan to continue to do so.
Specifically, the City is planning to implement so-called RMAS, where people will still be locked alone in a cell 23 hours a day. Mental health experts have made clear this system will inflict the same harm as other forms of solitary because the harms of solitary stem from the social isolation it imposes. Recently the mayor has been issuing executive orders that authorize DOC to circumvent the Board of Corrections’ minimum standards and lock everyone in the city jails in solitary confinement for any reason or no reason at all, and for any length of time.
Enough is enough. The city continues to break their promise to me and my family to end solitary confinement. The City is planning to violate binding state law, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. The City continues to put everyone — including people who are incarcerated and staff — at risk by using this racist, torturous, and counterproductive practice that causes harm and death and leads to more violence. Solitary causes people to engage in self-mutilation and suicide. It causes heart disease. It causes anxiety, depression, and psychosis. It leads people to deteriorate mentally and physically. Research shows even only one or two days in solitary leads to significantly heightened risk of death by accident, suicide, violence, overdose, and other causes. On the day she died in solitary, my sister had been locked in her cell for only two or three hours before she died.
The evidence in New York City, New York State, and across the country is clear: what actually works to both enhance well-being and improve safety for everyone is the exact opposite of solitary: pro-social, program-based forms of separation with full days of out-of-cell group interaction like the CAPS program in NYC jails, the Merle Cooper Program in NYS, and the RSVP program in San Francisco jails.
Speaker Johnson, I am urging you to step up NOW, and immediately bring legislation banning solitary confinement to a vote by the full Council. People who have lived through solitary, family members who have had or lost loved ones to solitary, and hundreds of civil rights and racial justice organizations have urged the Council to act for months and years. Passing a bill to end solitary this term will finally stop this torture and save lives for years to come. And despite the fear mongering, the evidence shows that this bill will also make everyone more safe, including people incarcerated and staff.
Now is the moment. For this year’s Trans Day of Remembrance and for the sake of my sister and the countless others who have been tortured and killed by this city’s jails, you and your colleagues in the City Council must do what is right. Bring legislation to end solitary to a vote immediately.
Melania Brown is an activist and the sister of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died in solitary confinement in Rikers Island jail in June 2019.