The legacy of Layleen Xtravaganza-Polanco, a Black trans woman who died at Rikers Island during Pride month in 2019, illustrates a key tension within prisoner rights movements.
Centering the experiences of transgender prisoners can motivate reform that fits within a broader fight for prison abolition. However, so-called solidarity with transgender prisoners can at times be weaponized to justify policies that entrench their incarceration.
On June 7, 2019, 27-year-old Xtravaganza-Polanco was found dead in her cell from an epileptic seizure while held in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. She was an Afro-Latina transgender woman actively involved with New York’s ballroom community, specifically the House of Xtravaganza.
Since Xtravaganza-Polanco’s murder by the prison industrial complex, the local trans community and their allies, including her family house, vocalized their outrage.
Hundreds gathered after Xtravaganza-Polanco died to demonstrate and demand Rikers be shut down for good, Truthout reported. Notable trans figures in media, including “POSE” star Indya Moore and writer-slash-activist Raquel Willis, spoke at the demonstration.
Xtravaganza-Polanco’s name was used alongside Kalief Browder‘s by New York City councilperson Daniel Dromm to justify his vote in favor of constructing new four jails in October. While Dromm advocated for closing Rikers Island, a position popularized by abolitionists and advanced by groups such as No New Jails NYC, the councilperson then used Polanco’s legacy to justify building new, more technologically advanced walls.
Gender-Responsive Prisons As A Response To Violence
Xtravaganza-Polanco was held in a trans unit at Rikers Island opened by the Department of Corrections in late 2014.
The unit’s creation was motivated out of a call to “protect” trans people following 2009 Lambda Legal data and other studies exposing the disproportionate violence trans people face from other prisoners compared to their cisgender counterparts.
In recent years, such reforms have been critiqued by grassroots anti-violence activists and scholars as a form of “carceral humanism,” or the rebranding of carceral control as a form of care.
However, some see reforms like trans units as necessary for addressing the immediate needs of transgender prisoners.
Shadowproof spoke with Alyssa Victoria Hope (aka Comrade Alyssa), a Black transgender woman and political prisoner incarcerated in a western Maryland state men’s prison.
Trans women aren’t allowed to wear make-up in general population at her prison, Hope shared, but they may do so in individual cells.
As part of the movement for prison abolition, Hope stressed the need for trans units and placing trans women in women’s prisons while also offering adequate mental health care.
At North Branch Correctional Institution, Alyssa and other trans women, who have legal female gender markers, are placed in administrative segregation to protect them from high rates of violence from male prisoners.
This protocol only goes so far, since these women are still vulnerable to violence by correctional officers no matter where they are housed.
In fact, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration re-opened the solitary unit within the trans section during the first week of July, less than a month after Xtravaganza-Polanco’s death.
Trans Incarceration And The Bail Reform Movement
In general, poor people and especially poor women are disproportionately incarcerated and face extraordinarily high bail amounts. The situation is even more precarious for trans women, especially trans women of color, who face higher rates of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration.
According to data from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 47 percent of all Black trans people will experience a level of incarceration at some point during their lifetime.
“The theory was that if someone was arrested, and a judge set a specified amount of cash bail that the accused could pay, it would give the person an incentive to come back to court,” Steinberg said. “That’s because at the end of any criminal case, bail money comes back to you, assuming you made your court appearances.”
“Sounds reasonable. It might even sound fair. But the theory doesn’t fit the reality of what cash bail has become in this country.”
According to the Intercept, Xtravaganza-Polanco was held behind bars on $500 bail for misdemeanor charges related to sex work and low-level drug offenses.
Xtravaganza-Polanco’s case is similar to LGBTQ+ movement mothers Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were both regularly targeted for not only being visible Black and Brown trans women, but also employed as sex workers during their lifetimes. Unfortunately, Black and Brown trans women face similar fates today, despite other LGBTQ+ advances made, as the assault on Xtravaganza-Polanco shows us today.
Her name was used to advance bail reforms and establish a trans bail fund in the city. As a result, significant changes have been made to the cash bail policy. If Xtravaganza-Polanco were arrested after January 2020, she would not have been held behind bars, according to CNN.
The course of events also led to the formation of grassroots organizations. One group, the Emergency Release Fund, has released at least 14 trans people.
As of early December, most were in their 20s. One was an immigrant in Arizona. Two were from the Manhattan Detention Complex.
Josh Goldfein attended the initial summer planning meeting for the Emergency Release Fund.
“We are following in the footsteps of other community bail funds that served trans folks in the past,” Goldfein told Shadowproof. “We hope to build on the work that others in the community already began and supplement their efforts to free more people. The Fund hopes to honor all people who just want to live as themselves in the world by freeing trans people from incarceration.”
The emergency release fund posts bail for transgender people in NYC Jails
If you know TGNC ppl that have had cash bail set by a judge, we can help
To contribute to the bail fund https://t.co/XsqLYFSP2d
— Emergency Release Fund (@release_fund) October 30, 2019
The fund conducts outreach by distributing materials on Rikers Island, as well as “through emails to public defender organizations and community groups,” Goldfein shared. “We are looking for ways to expand awareness so that people in the community can contact us directly. For now, we take requests through a Google doc on our website.”
Separately, there are funds in New York dedicated to transgender people, such as the F2L Network and Trans Bail Fund. No New Jails NYC also started a similar effort to raise funds for trans women’s commissary accounts.
Solitary Confinement And Trans Women Of Color
Xtravaganza-Polanco died in a solitary cell, and her name has been used to spread awareness of how lethal solitary can be for trans people.
The communal grief surrounding Xtravaganza-Polanco highlighted the urgency of concerns regarding solitary confinement and its lethal impact on LGBTQ+ people beyond New York City’s local government. She served as a catalyst for legislative reform to end the practice, according to the City.
LGBTQ+ people are subject to solitary confinement at higher rates than the rest of the general population.
A 2014 study conducted on New York City jails found that those subjected to solitary confinement were far more likely to engage in self-harm. A 2015 Black and Pink report found 85 percent of LGBTQ+ survey participants reported being placed in solitary at some point while being incarcerated.
Additionally, Solitary Watch reported that transgender women of color face disproportionately high rates of solitary confinement “for disciplinary reasons directly or indirectly related to their gender identity.”
For this group, especially those who are HIV positive, medical neglect as a result of solitary confinement can easily result in death, like the cases of Johana Medina Leon, Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, and so many others, including those detained by I.C.E.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren called to end this practice in her criminal justice reform plan, even for protective purposes. She cited how harmful it can be to prisoners’ mental and physical health.
Let’s be clear: Layleen Cubilette-Polanco should still be alive. Solitary confinement is cruel and inhumane. We must end this practice, enforce strict standards for medical care, and provide extra layers of protection for LGBTQ+ people.https://t.co/J9yjkCd1tF
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 1, 2019
Warren’s plan also touched upon special protections for LGBTQ+ people behind bars, particularly from harassment and assault of other prisoners and staff.
Johana Medina Leon and Layleen Cubilette-Polanco should be alive right now. We must enforce strict standards for medical care for LGBTQ+ people in custody. We must end cash bail. We must end the unnecessary detainment of asylum seekers. #SayTheirNames
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 25, 2019
Warren also recently vowed to hold an annual vigil dedicated to trans deaths, where the names of every trans person murdered that year would be read out loud. Though well-intended, critics suggested this move was more performative rather than a tangible effort to reduce trans-related deaths.
Tensions Between Reformist-Reforms And Abolitionist Reforms
The tensions between reformist-reforms and abolitionist reforms are strong when it comes to the incarceration of transgender people, and it is not always clear where material changes to their prison experiences will fall.
While reformist and abolitionist movements overlap on issues like bail reform and solitary confinement, the divergence on issues like gender-responsive prison reforms constitutes an area of ongoing debate between and within groups advocating for incarcerated people.
“Women’s prisons are better for us.” Housing trans women in women’s prisons not only affirms their gender and reduces the harm of being exposed to violence from male prisoners, but it also potentially enables trans women to organize with other women, rather than men, from behind bars, according to Hope.
Some abolitionists struggle with strategies like gender-responsive housing, which arguably give power or resources to the carceral system. However, they reject the idea that this means they are not concerned with present conditions.
“A common misconception that a lot of people who were in support of the mayor’s plan [for new prison walls] capitalized on was that abolitionists are not concerned with the conditions on the inside currently because we are so focused on closing things that we don’t want to improve the material conditions of people, and what Mariame [Kaba] says, is that’s bullshit,” K Agbebiyi, a New York-based abolitionist organizer and social worker, told Shadowproof.
Agbebiyi—who is involved with the New York chapter of Survived and Punished as well as the No New Jails NYC coalition–cited Angela Davis’ arguments that “reform just creates better prisons” and “prisons were the original reform.”
Concerns with conditions must be more comprehensive, going beyond simply meeting the needs of trans prisoners while they’re in a cell to include their conditions after their release as well.
Hope emphasized that trans women’s re-entry needs must be considered and met, stressing the importance of housing, education, employment, and physical and mental health care.
Those wanting to organize for trans women post-incarceration should “go into the community and talk to trans women” following the legacy of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries),” Hope recommended. STAR is a grassroots organization founded by Johnson and Rivera to house trans sex workers that formed after a sit-in at Weinstein Hall at New York University in 1970.
More broadly, Hope warned against trusting the same government that commits violence against her to keep its word when it comes to reforms for trans people.
“[Ending cash bail] would save a lot of tax dollars,” Hope concluded. “It would downsize prison populations, but it depends if [government institutions] will actually follow the law [if reformed].”
Author’s note: The author serves as an advocate for and organizer on behalf of Alyssa Victoria Hope, a source quoted in the piece.