Department of Correction officials would have to notify the public after any death in custody within 24 hours if a bill set to be introduced Thursday becomes law.
The agency overseeing detainee medical care would also have to issue public reports with recommendations to prevent future fatalities.
City Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), the legislation’s primary sponsor, cited THE CITY’s coverage about the lack of transparency in jail death reporting and secret medical morbidity and mortality reviews conducted by staff at Correctional Health Services.
“It is critical that the City Council install guardrails and implement laws that prevent the Department of Correction from concealing information that can be used to hold them accountable to their duty to care for those in its custody,” said Rivera, who chairs the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee.
Eight people have died behind bars this year so far, including three at the George R. Vierno Center, one of eight jails on Rikers Island. In 2022, city lockups saw 19 deaths among approximately 6,000 detainees — the highest rate in decades.
The deaths, on top of years of failed reforms, have led to louder calls for a federal receiver to take over the DOC. A federal judge overseeing the department has agreed to listen to arguments in favor of outside management. The next court hearing is in November.
In May, THE CITY reported the DOC abruptly stopped issuing press releases when an incarcerated person died.
At the time, chief department spokesperson Frank Dwyer called the previous public notifications “a practice, not a policy.”
During a July meeting of the Board of Correction, the oversight body for the city jails system, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina defended keeping the information private, arguing other correction departments he has worked for (Westchester County and Las Vegas.) didn’t tell reporters when people in custody died. He also noted that his department alerts the board, the New York state attorney general, and the federal monitor whenever there is a death.
He said the DOC changed its practice so it could give family members of people who died time to be notified and properly grieve.
“Most importantly we notify the next of kin … so we can share the very devastating news,” Molina added. “For the dignity of that person’s family, and the dignity of their transition, we feel that we want to be able to empower the families.”
But when the Correction Department previously issued press releases it was always only after relatives were notified first.
Following widespread criticism of the new death reporting policy, DOC’s press team created a special press list it now uses to notify certain reporters after deaths occur behind bars.
Another Board, More Reports
The proposed legislation — expected to be introduced at the full Council meeting Thursday afternoon — would formally require jail personnel to notify the deceased’s defense attorney and the media within 24 hours.
Presently, each jail death is investigated by the Department of Correction, Correctional Health Services (CHS), and the Board of Correction. But only the board issues public reports with recommendations.
The new legislation would also require the other agencies to also produce public reports and calls for the establishment of a so-called Jail Death Review Board “to examine systemic issues that contributed to deaths in custody.”
That board would be chaired by the deputy mayor for public safety — currently Philip Banks — or someone designated by the deputy mayor. Other members of the death-review board would be selected by the chief medical officer of CHS, commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the executive director of the Board of Correction.
The proposed legislation would also force CHS to regularly report how many people with serious medical conditions are being let go as a so-called compassionate release.
Last month, THE CITY reported how so-called morbidity and mortality reports conducted by Correctional Health Services are never made public, and their “corrective action” recommendations are rarely shared with anyone outside of city government.
Critics say this lack of transparency enables the city Department of Correction to ignore recommended fixes and puts the lives of incarcerated people at risk.
Correctional Health Services officials contend the privacy protections in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) bars them from sharing any part with the public — including redacted versions or even just the corrective action recommendations.
Meanwhile, a similar bill focused on the state prison system is also expected to soon be amended to include local lockups like Rikers, according to a source familiar with the legislation.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) typically reaches out to close relatives within 24 hours of a death. But members of the public sometimes wait weeks before hearing of the latest death at New York prisons.
In the meantime, the Correctional Association, the nation’s oldest prison oversight organization, plans to announce on Thursday the launch of a new “data dashboard” — a website to make it easier for the public to know when and where prisoners die, and the circumstances behind the deaths.
“Data transparency, including the accurate and timely reporting of data is fundamental for a safer, accountable prison system,” said Jennifer Scaife, the association’s executive director.
As for the City Council legislation, one mother whose son died on Rikers two years ago hailed the proposal.
“The dysfunction, unbearable environment, and neglect took my son’s life,” said Tamara Carter, whose son Brandon Rodriguez, 25, reportedly took his own life inside a shower in August 2021.
“I question every death on that island,” she added. “What does the Department of Correction have to hide? No city, state or government agency should have that power!”