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New Republic - October 17, 2019

"Very few people in New York City jails are serving a sentence: around 12 percent."

If you’re part of the ballroom scene in New York, you may have known the name of the young, trans, Afro-Latina performer Layleen Cubilette-Polanco Xtravaganza, even before her death at Rikers Island in June. Her name has traveled far now, from New York City’s Pride season, to presidential candidate forums, as a cry against abuse in prisons. Polanco died of a seizure in solitary confinement after she couldn’t pay $500 in bail connected to two-year-old misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges. Her death—and the mourning and organizing that followed—made national news, with activists asking why Department of Corrections officials, who had known of her seizure history, had placed her in such dangerous conditions. When Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren introduced her LGBTQ rights plan last week, she mentioned Polanco by name, among other trans women who “should be alive today.”

This Thursday, the New York City Council will vote on legislation which could close the jail complex on Rikers Island. And while that on its own represents a tremendous victory for the criminal justice reform movement, it has also opened up a powerful debate about what exactly reform means in practice. Razing the jail would be both humane and symbolic: For more than a century, it has borne the name of a New York legal official once responsible for deporting enslaved and free black people back to the South before they could challenge him in court. But the question, for some reformers, is whether simply moving the people who are incarcerated at Rikers to newer, purportedly more humane facilities, is enough. Most of these people, reformers say, should never have been incarcerated in the first place.

Last Friday, outside the Chelsea home of Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council, advocates gathered in Polanco’s memory. Speaker Johnson has echoed Warren, saying solitary confinement should be ended, and that Polanco should never have been held over bail money: “A woman’s freedom shouldn’t depend on the amount of money she has in her pocket,” as Johnson put it this past summer. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed that Polanco should not have been sent to Rikers. Both called for the jail where Polanco died to be closed.

But marching through the streets that afternoon, activists had a sharper and more specific message for Johnson: Not only should Polanco never have been in Rikers in the first place, and not only should the notorious, aging, remote jail complex be shuttered, but plans for new jails to replace Rikers, spread across four boroughs, should be abandoned as well. ...
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