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Opinion: Solitary confinement is killing transgender people

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Her Campus American journalists are free to express opinions. The opinions in this article are not representative of Her Campus American’s opinions as an organization. 

Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a transgender woman, spent her last moments in 2019 in a New York City jail cell alone in solitary confinement dying from an epileptic seizure. Officers assumed she was napping. A year after her death, the city announced that it would end solitary confinement in its jails. Now, California may follow New York City’s lead.

A California bill, dubbed the California Mandela Act, passed in the state House to limit the time spent in solitary confinement and forbid specific demographics from isolation based on risk factors including age and disability. This bill can protect the physical and mental health of incarcerated transgender people, who are often sent to solitary confinement for their protection. This practice can produce fatal outcomes.

The bill requires every facility in California to document solitary confinement procedures and uses. The proposed legislation also requires frequent medical and mental health checks, and limits solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days and no more than 45 days in a 180-day period. It would also forbid solitary confinement for certain populations including those who are pregnant, elderly or disabled.

In state and federal prisons across the country, 4.4% of the prison population is in solitary confinement, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s over 80,000 people. Incarcerated people are isolated for reasons varying from throwing a punch to forgetting to make their beds.

Nearly 5,000 transgender people are incarcerated in state prisons. They are often put in solitary confinement for their so-called protection, according to data from the Survey of Prison Inmates.

This is a devastating irony for transgender people. Solitary confinement can lead to suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia, hallucination and endanger physical health. A shocking forty percent of transgender people attempt suicide. This figure is nine times higher than the attempted suicide rate for the general population, according to the U.S. Transgender Survey.

Polanco, a Black and disabled transgender woman, represents those who are vulnerable to the dangers of solitary confinement. A video of the incidents leading up to her death showed several staff members knocking on Polanco’s cell door to no response.

Officers laughed over Polanco’s unresponsive body in a video. They checked on her 47 minutes later. They were too late. The New York City Department of Investigation said the laughter was unrelated and the staff thought Polanco was napping.

The California Mandela Act would protect transgender people by focusing on safeguarding mental health issues and disabilities. This could save live like Polanco’s, who had epilepsy.

Thirty percent of transgender people reported having a physical disability or mental health condition that substantially affects a major life activity, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Therefore, it’s less likely that they would be segregated under the California bill which forbids segregating the disabled. Even if they are, frequent health checks by professionals would provide people with support and a possible way out of solitary confinement.

Some say that solitary confinement is necessary for controlling incarcerated people and providing the entire prison with safety from a dangerous person, and in many cases involving transgender people, self-protection.

Stories like Polanco’s and many other incarcerated and isolated people show otherwise. Protection is a guise for an easy way out of rehabilitation and reform.

Other states are reforming solitary confinement practices, like California. In 2021, 70 pieces of legislation were filed in 32 states to limit solitary confinement in state prisons and jails, according to the ACLU.

Now, the California Mandela Act is headed to a floor vote in the state Senate. California could become a leader in solitary confinement reform– and it should. Passing this bill could make the state a much-needed role model in treating transgender people as human beings.

Sana Mamtaney (she/her) is a third-year student at American University studying journalism and political science. She loves writing about social justice issues and how they affect our daily lives. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, watching reality TV, and listening to Hozier and One Direction.