The Adams Administration Has a New Policy for Jail Deaths: Cover-up

Criminal-justice activists protesting at the gate to Rikers Island on February 28, 2022. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

The City reported on Thursday that the New York City Department of Correction will no longer notify the media when a person dies while incarcerated, ending a consistent process that has been in effect for two years. “That was a practice, not a policy,” Frank Dwyer, the department’s new spokesman, told the outlet.

The Legal Aid Society, the city’s largest provider of public defense, slammed the move in a statement: “This is another lowlight in the Department of Correction’s campaign to keep outside eyes away from the catastrophe that is the city’s jail system and the harm it inflicts daily on New Yorkers trapped inside its deadly walls.”

The city’s shift in approach came to light following the deaths of two inmates on Rikers Island in recent weeks that the DOC did not publicize. The deaths were among five incidents mentioned in a scathing report issued on May 26 by Steve J. Martin, a federal monitor charged with overseeing the complex, who raised the alarm about the jail’s management. In his report, filed in federal court, Martin concluded, “There is significant cause for concern about the imminent risk of harm to people in custody” on Rikers Island — the city’s largest jail, where more than 30 people have died in recent years.

One of the recent deaths was that of Joshua Valles, a 31-year-old man incarcerated on Rikers, who was taken to the hospital on May 19 after vomiting and complaining of a headache. He suffered a seizure en route, according to the New York Times. His mother told the paper that her son went into cardiac arrest while the hospital conducted tests. Valles died on May 27.

In a letter to Judge Laura Taylor Swain, the federal judge overseeing the Rikers hearings, Martin noted that a subsequent autopsy would reveal that Valles had a fractured skull, which he called “serious and disturbing.” According to Martin’s report, federal monitors learned of Valles’s hospital admission days later from an outside source and found out about his death after the report was filed. Martin wrote that the DOC believed Valles had had a heart attack and that “there was no official wrongdoing.”

In another incident, 52-year-old Rubu Zhao died after jumping from the top tier of the psychiatric unit at Rikers. According to the monitor, the DOC did not immediately report the death, resulting in the monitoring team learning about it from a news report that featured a statement from Louis A. Molina, the department commissioner.

Martin’s report took aim at agency leadership as well, writing that it wasn’t clear if Molina and his staff “fully appreciate the gravity of the issues at hand and the importance of transparency and oversight.” He said that Molina seemed to suggest in a written message that the monitor shouldn’t issue a report, “because it will cause ‘great harm [to the Department] at a time when we are making great strides.’”

A hearing is slated to be held on June 13 in response to the incidents highlighted by the federal monitor.

Adams Admin. Has a New Policy for Jail Deaths: Cover-up