No news is bad news. The NYC Department of Corrections (DOC) recently stopped informing the public about custody deaths in the wake of the third known Rikers Island-related death this year.
Last Tuesday, May 30, the New York Times reported the death of Joshua Valles, who was held at Rikers’ Anna M. Kross Center jail. A DOC spokesperson confirmed the recent passing of a detainee who was released from department custody “on his own recognizance” before his death. Valles was not directly identified, although the information was provided in response to a media request in his name.
Valles is the second person known to die in or immediately after leaving Rikers Island last month. Rubu Zhao died while held in the complex’s George R. Vierno Center (GRVC) jail on May 16. The DOC did not proactively notify the media of either incident, standard practice throughout last year’s Rikers death crisis, when 19 people died in or shortly after custody. The department subsequently revealed the end of reaching out to the press when a detainee dies.
“All appropriate internal investigations and required notifications to oversight and outside agencies always take place immediately,” said the DOC spokesperson by email. “Next of kin and the deceased individual’s legal counsel are notified as well.”
Zhao’s court-appointed lawyer, Jonathan Fink, confirmed the department proactively informed him of his client’s death, but he’s currently in the dark about the specifics.
“I don’t know what happened. I haven’t seen a report [and] I don’t know what the details are,” said Fink. “I don’t know if it was an accident. I don’t know if he took his own life. But regardless of how it happened, it’s certainly very upsetting and very tragic…until I see the report, I’m skeptical [of] what happened, and even with the report.
“I don’t know if there’s a video that sheds light on how he died. But certainly that would be something someone should see.”
To be clear, proactive death notifications to the press and public are not eliminated, but require an opt-in by the inquiring party. Incident reports can still be obtained by request. The DOC claims rolling back custody death alerts is done “to respect those who have transitioned.” But the new process obstructs the public’s understanding of how many people died on Rikers this year.
After the recent news, City Comptroller Brad Lander changed his office’s tally of DOC custody deaths to “unknown.”
“We genuinely don’t know,” said Lander. “They’ve told us they’re not telling us. You want to compare whether the situation is getting better or worse. You can’t do that unless you have [an] honest number.”
His DOC dashboard—where custody deaths are tracked—was erected roughly a year ago as a transparency measure. It catalogs basic statistics regarding the department, comparing them to previous months and years to track improvement and decline. While some metrics are provided by the DOC, Lander said tallying the number of people who died in Rikers relies on press reports, as well as subsequent, mandated Board of Corrections investigations.
The comptroller believes transparency is an important short-term solution for addressing the Rikers Island “humanitarian crisis.” He added that an open door policy would benefit the DOC as well.
“This issue of correction officers calling out sick—you could actually see improvement in those numbers during the time of the Adams administration,” said Lander. “Be transparent, show what’s taking place. Let us evaluate what’s going on with violence [and] death on the island—with use of force, productions for court, [and] productions for medical. And evaluate what the data tells us—that’s the way to be accountable. Not hide the worst things.”
Mayor Eric Adams, on the other hand, backed the DOC’s decision to end press alerts for Rikers deaths.
“[Commissioner Louis] Molina has turned it around and I support him to do the job I hired him to do,” Adams said last week. “And whatever methods he needs to do it, within the boundaries of not violating any laws or rights of people, I support.”
The hospitalization leading to Valles’s death also lines up with one of five harrowing incidents detailed in a special report filed on May 26 by the federally appointed Nunez Monitor. All of them were recorded within a week-and-a-half span last month. Like the recent custody deaths, these incidents were not proactively reported by the DOC—according to the monitor’s report, they were learned through either “external sources” or outside media coverage.
The report described the fourth incident as involving a detainee in his early 30s who was placed on life support after reporting headaches around May 20 with low expectation to survive. It was not initially or properly recorded. DOC Commissioner Louis Molina told the federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, that the department did not know much more, although foul play is not suspected.
The report says the detainee was “compassionately released,” although the term is specious and should not be used to refer to pre-sentenced populations, according to a NYC Health+Hospitals spokesperson. Martin later reportedly penned a letter questioning the veracity of DOC’s claims, saying an autopsy showed Valles died from a fractured skull, according to The Gothamist.
The other four incidents detailed in the report were similarly troubling. One recounted an elderly detainee—over age 80, with “alleged cognitive impairments and language barriers”—as suffering “life-altering” injuries after he was restrained by the back and held alone in a pen for a “prolonged period.” The senior was also released following his ordeal.
Rikers critics lambasted the DOC in their statements after Valles’s death and the release of the monitor’s report.
“If the mayor actually plans to invest in mental health, we’d see people like Mr. Valles getting the help he needed in the community,” said Freedom Agenda’s Darren Mack. “We would see the number of people in Rikers plummeting. The fact that the administration is planning for more people in jail shows that, despite giving lip service to ‘upstream’ solutions, they are only planning to follow through on the same failed, downstream approaches that keep feeding the death camp that is Rikers.”
“This is the 22nd person to die in city jails since Mayor Eric Adams took office,” said the Katal Center’s Melanie Dominguez. “The conditions in our city’s jail system are horrific and life-threatening for people incarcerated there and those who work there. Rikers is an appalling disaster. This recent death comes a day after the federal monitor issued an alarming new report outlining how the people incarcerated at Rikers are at an ‘imminent risk of harm’ due to the DOC’s mismanagement (and) outright lack of care, and the administration’s unwillingness to address the longstanding issues plaguing the city’s jail system. And here’s yet another life lost.”
Rikers Island is mandated to close by 2027 and will be replaced by four borough-based jails outfitted with “more humane” detention facilities and located nearby courthouses for faster processing. Before the closure, though, citywide officials like Lander and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams continue to call for federal receivership over the troubled complex.
“I don’t celebrate this step, which I know would bring its own challenges, but it is clear that when it comes to protecting people on both sides of the bars and correcting the crisis conditions on Rikers, after over a year of purported reforms, this administration has earned neither the trust nor the confidence it shows in this area,” said Williams. “They did not create the longstanding issues on Rikers, but despite any efforts they have undertaken, patterns of abuse, neglect, secrecy and misinformation have continued.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.