Prisoner who died at rikers had fractured skull, DOC claims he died of a heart attack

Pointing fingers at Gov. Hochul: Blood on her hands?

June 1, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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A 31-year-old prisoner at Rikers Island died last week. Although officials initially attributed his death to a heart attack, a report by Nick Pinto at revealed a potential cover-up. Autopsy results showed that the victim may have, in fact, died from a fractured skull.

Joshua Valles complained of headaches on May 20, while incarcerated, which subsequently led to his rapid health decline. Contrary to the Department of Corrections’ assertion that Valles suffered a heart attack and denied any foul play, an autopsy performed posthumously revealed a skull fracture.

The court-appointed monitor, Steve Martin, has called into question the transparency of the Department of Correction, especially after Commissioner Louis Molina dismissed any suspicion of wrongdoing within the department. Martin’s skepticism was further fueled by Molina’s reluctance to publicize Valles’s incident and others that raised safety concerns in NYC jails.

Valles’ lawyer, Stan Germán, the executive director of New York County Defender Services, indicated that the autopsy findings strongly suggest Valles may have been a victim of violence while incarcerated at Rikers Island. Germán also underscored the lack of communication from the Department of Correction towards Valles’s family, neither notifying them of their son’s health crisis nor offering condolences.

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Critics of bail reform rollbacks that were passed recently by Gov. Kathy Hochul have said that blood is on her hands after changes to the law she championed contributed to Valles’s death. Valles’ offenses were non-violent and stemmed from addiction issues, was unable to afford his bail and was subsequently held at Rikers, leading to his untimely demise.

The #HALTsolitary Campaign released a statement accusing NYC jails of being responsible for Valles’s death and calling for Commissioner Molina’s resignation. The campaign vehemently criticized the handling of vulnerable individuals in jail and called for immediate action to halt sending people to deadly jails and prisons and to end abusive practices.

“Mayor Adams, Governor Hochul, state and local lawmakers, and Commissioner Molina all have blood on their hands,” said Jerome Wright, #HALTsolitary Campaign Co-Director. “Joshua Valles should be alive today,” he continued.

“An individual diagnosed with autism and schizoaffective and bipolar disorders is especially unsafe in jail,” Wright continued. “Instead of receiving treatment and support, bail rollbacks sent him to what everyone knows is a deathtrap jail, he died with a fractured skull, and Commissioner Molina tried to cover it up. I repeat that Rikers Island is Abu Ghraib in New York City. Molina must resign immediately, and elected officials must release everyone now and shut that hellhole down today. This status quo has got to go.”

The Department of Correction has offered some comments to the Brooklyn Eagle, albeit rather vague. It claims that Valles was released on his own recognizance and subsequently passed away at Elmhurst Hospital, no longer in DOC custody. 

A spokesperson from the DOC mentioned a process for releasing medically complex and/or critically ill individuals from DOC custody but did not explicitly state whether this applied to Valles. They claimed that a total of 95 such letters advocating for patient release were written last year, with 7 pertaining to critically ill patients. However, they emphasized that the court makes the final decision on release, not any city agency.

The DOC is conducting its own investigation.

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