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Silence Is Violence: Hiding Deaths in City Jails Emboldens Lawmakers to Keep Ignoring Incarcerated New Yorkers

By Alice Hamblett on June, 15 2023

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Alice Hamblett

Alice Hamblett is a Senior Policy Manager at Common Justice.

Last fall, Common Justice published a blog post on the pervasiveness of medical neglect in New York City jails, condemning the avoidable deaths of 19 people in 2022 alone. This year has proved to be no different, as three people have already died on Rikers Island in 2023.  The New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) and state and city lawmakers are failing Black and brown communities, who, due to our country’s racist criminal legal system, are disproportionately caged in death traps like Rikers Island.   

This month, we learned that some of the horrors of Rikers Island will now be hidden from the public, as the DOC has ceased the De Blasio-era practice of issuing press releases with the details of deaths in city jails. By shirking accountability and obscuring the deadliness of Rikers Island, the DOC will undoubtedly embolden political leaders to continue to turn their backs on incarcerated New Yorkers in the name of public safety. 

This opacity is nothing new. In January of this year, the DOC limited the Board of Correction’s (BOC) —the non-judicial oversight board that monitors and regulates city jails —access to surveillance and body camera footage from Riker’s Island.  More recently, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina “pleaded” with the Federal Monitor appointed to oversee the department not to release a damning report documenting five incidents that occurred in city jails during May 2023 and resulted in serious injury, such as paralysis, or death. This was after the DOC delayed reporting these incidents to the Federal Monitor. This abhorrent report was enough to make a federal judge consider full federal receivership over Rikers Island. Molina argued that the release of the report would “cause great harm to the department when we are making great strides.” These strides, which remain to be seen, have done nothing to prevent the death of and violence against people incarcerated in city jails.  

Marvin Pines, 65, passed away from a seizure on Rikers Island in February 2023. Staff failed to provide him with prompt medical attention, an ever-worsening pattern in city jails, and their delays likely cost him his life. Pines, an older man battling substance use disorder, should have been offered services and support, not abandoned on Rikers Island.  

Rubu Zhao, 52, died on May 16 after he jumped from the top tier of a Rikers Island’s psychiatric unit. The DOC delayed reporting Zhao’s death, ultimately demonstrating a disregard for his life and a desire to hide its negligence.   

Joshua Valles, 31, passed away on May 23 after being taken from Rikers Island to Elmhurst Hospital. The DOC initially attributed Valles’ death to headaches and a heart attack, describing his passing as a result of a “non-incident related condition or injury.”  Reports later revealed that Valles died from a skull fracture, likely due to harm he suffered while detained. Valles’ humanity and needs were clearly ignored.   

But state and city lawmakers have the power to prevent tragedies like these from occurring in city jails. As highlighted by New York County Defender Services, Valles would not have been held on Rikers Island if rollbacks had not been made to 2020 bail reforms in 2022: “The offenses for which he stood charged are – on their own–not eligible for pre-trial detention under the bail reform laws enacted in 2020. However, the court was able to set bail in the amount of $10,000, pursuant to the ‘harm plus harm’ provision added in the 2022 bail reform rollbacks.”  

Those who advocated for such rollbacks have blood on their hands. 

As does Mayor Eric Adams, who recently cut $17 million of funding to classes and reentry services on Rikers Island. According to Gothamist, cut services include “training in carpentry and plumbing skills, financial literacy, cognitive behavioral therapy, drug relapse prevention and anger management.” By fostering connections to the outside and valuable skills for returning to their communities, this programming has long provided a glimmer of hope to those made to suffer on Rikers Island. It has also helped to mitigate some of the trauma of incarceration. With these cuts, Adams has actively chosen to disinvest from and publicly devalue New York’s most vulnerable.  

Adams also appointed and has stood by BOC Chair Dwayne Sampson. Throughout his tenure, Sampson has removed more progressive members of the board from committee appointments and attempted to have an advocate escorted out of a public hearing. Rather than holding the DOC accountable, Adams and Sampson are contributing to a culture of impunity.  

We will not forget the names of those we lost to mass incarceration and the horrors of city jails this year. Joshua Valles, Rubu Zhao, and Marvin Pines should all be alive today, but state and city lawmakers failed them.  

Now more than ever, it is clear how policy decisions have set the stage for the deaths and suffering of incarcerated New Yorkers of color. The DOC encourages increased apathy from those in power by attempting to bury the abhorrent conditions and deaths in city jails. Our political leaders have a responsibility to prevent such tragedies and fight back against increasingly dystopic measures designed to withhold information from the public. Rikers Island must close, and New York State must end mass incarceration and pretrial detention. 

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