The New York City Department of Correction has officially stopped notifying the media about the deaths of incarcerated people.
For years, the DOC’s media team would share a press release announcing the death of someone in prison. The information would include the deceased person’s name, housing facility, date and time of death.
“That was a practice, not a policy,” Frank Dwyer, a new DOC chief spokesperson, said, The City reported.
Over the past two weeks, the DOC has not informed the public about deaths in prison, including the passing of 52-year-old Rubu Zhao, who allegedly jumped from an upper floor of a specialized unit for people with mental illness in Rikers on May 14. The department also concealed the death of Joshua Valles, who died Saturday after suffering from a fractured skull. Valles’ cause of death was initially attributed to a heart attack; the 31-year-old had received a “compassionate” release just days before his death.
Many are skeptical about the change, including Stanley Richards, a former Rikers prisoner turned DOC commissioner, who thinks the new policy is a mistake.
“This administration is going back to the way in which jails were managed decades ago. They are closing ranks,” he told The City.
Richards is the vice president of Fortune Society, a nonprofit that supports incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.
Kayla Simpson, staff attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, thinks the shift is an attempt to deflect from criticism.
“I think it’s part of a series of attempts to isolate the jails from scrutiny to control the narrative,” she said, per the outlet.
Simpson may have a point; the change in how the department handles deaths behind bars comes as federal monitor Steve Martin has openly challenged Correction Commissioner Louis Molina and his office for failing to inform him about a recent death and several other “serious and disturbing incidents involving harm to incarcerated persons.”
The department has also stopped real-time video surveillance access from Rikers and other facilities in the city to the Board of Correction, which supervises the agency.
Dwayne Sampson, who Mayor Eric Adams appointed as the new chair of the Board of Correction in September, also tried to keep what’s happening in jails in the city under wraps. For example, he unsuccessfully attempted to reduce the number of public meetings annually from nine to six.
According to The City, Sampson mentioned deaths in city prisons are reported to the DOC’s “health affairs unit, special investigation team, chaplain and legal team.”