NYC Department of Corrections ceases death notifications to press

June 5, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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The New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) has found itself at the heart of a growing controversy following a significant policy change: the decision to cease notifying the press about deaths in detention.

This change, which was in effect for slightly under two years, has raised questions regarding transparency and the DOC’s commitment to maintaining accountability.

In a statement made on Wednesday, a DOC spokesperson confirmed the shift in policy, yet insisted that the Department is fully compliant with all rules and laws. The spokesperson also emphasized the DOC’s dedication to ongoing transparency and its respect for the deceased. The statement further outlined the notification process that occurs in the event of a death in custody, which includes informing a range of internal and external agencies, such as the Department’s Health Affairs division, its Special Investigation Unit (SIU), and the deceased individual’s next of kin and legal counsel, among others.

However, not everyone views this policy change benignly. Nick Turner, President and Director of Vera Institute of Justice, expressed serious concerns regarding this development. Turner, who has been a key figure in criminal legal reform for over a decade, highlighted the potential impact on accountability in an already beleaguered system.

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“With the NYC Department of Correction’s decision to stop notifying the press of deaths in detention…it is strikingly clear that the Adams administration cannot address the deadly crisis on Rikers,” Turner said. Turner has previously advocated for the appointment of a federal receiver, a role he believes is necessary given the DOC’s apparent failure to ensure safety and provide adequate health care, sanitary conditions, and basic nutrition for those in custody.

This policy change comes amidst an increasing tally of deaths under the current administration, with the count standing at 22 people so far.

It also comes just days after the case of Joshua Valles, a 31-year-old prisoner at Rikers Island, who died in late May. Officials initially attributed his death to a heart attack, but autopsy results revealed by Nick Pinto at suggest a different, and potentially more troubling, cause of death — a fractured skull.

Stan Germán, Valles’ lawyer and the executive director of New York County Defender Services, pointed to the lack of communication from the DOC, emphasizing that Valles’ family was not informed about their son’s health crisis nor offered condolences following his death.

Court-appointed monitor Steve Martin has raised questions about the DOC’s transparency, especially in light of Commissioner Louis Molina’s dismissal of suspicions of wrongdoing within the department.

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