The city Department of Correction isn’t the only jail system keeping advocates, elected officials and reporters in the dark when a person in custody dies.
While the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) typically reaches out to close relatives within 24 hours of a death, members of the public sometimes wait weeks before learning of the latest death behind bars.
Critics say the information blackout comes at a cost.
“They are not reporting it to us,” said state Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), who is drafting legislation to require DOCCS to notify state lawmakers quarterly. “So if there are problems going on, we can’t improve those situations.”
The proposed measure comes as the city’s Department of Correction abruptly stopped telling reporters about deaths behind bars, as THE CITY reported last month.
But the state prison system has never put out the word to the media when prisoners die.
Israel Ayala was one of the prisoners to die most recently while in state custody, according to data obtained by the Correctional Association of New York, an independent oversight body, via a Freedom of Information Law request.
Ayala, 47, died May 30 inside the Wende Correctional Facility medical center near Buffalo.
The father of two from The Bronx suffered from diabetes and had been in and out of hospital care since being imprisoned in October 2019 for a drug offense, according to his wife, Mary Ayala.
“He had like over 20 procedures and they never called me once to notify me he was in the hospital,” she told THE CITY, noting he also suffered a heart attack.
During a prior stint, prison doctors refused to give Israel Ayala insulin for “a few months” which “kicked him into renal failure,” Mary Ayala charged.
Public Needs to Know
When the pandemic hit, DOCCS kept a running online tally of deaths related to the virus, although that count did not include non-COVID cases.
Additionally, the department last year resumed posting its Annual Mortality Report. The latest report is limited to information from 2021.
As of June 26, there have been 48 deaths in state prisons this year, according to DOCCS spokesperson Rachel Connors. There were 111 in 2022, 134 in 2021, 115 in 2020, 113 in 2019 and 137 in 2018.
“Sometimes people die in prison because they are sick. Sometimes people die because they are old. And sometimes they die because they are killed. And the public needs to know what’s going on as soon as the agency,” said Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association, the country’s oldest prisoner-rights organization.
Connors said the department’s primary focus is to ensure that the deceased’s next of kin is notified.
Upon request, the department does provide reporters with information regarding specific deaths, including the date, time, and location, as well as the county coroner or medical examiner responsible for determining the cause of death, Connors added. The DOCCS Incarcerated Lookup also indicates if a person has died, she said.
But advocates note that reporters and elected officials typically do not know about fatalities unless they learn of them through family members or prison staffers.
“Prisons are closed institutions.” said Andrea Armstrong, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. “The public can’t just walk in and see what’s happening in that institution.”
Trends Go Unnoticed
Deaths are often an indicator of how the system is working, added Armstrong, the founder of Incarceration Transparency, which collects and analyzes death records from every lockup in Louisiana.
“So if we’re not learning about deaths, then we’re really not seeing what’s happening behind bars in terms of access to health care, in terms of supervision and access to contraband,” she said.
The lack of public notification in a timely manner frequently leads to confusion when a distant family member or friend struggles to reach someone behind bars, according to advocates for incarcerated people.
“A lot of people contact us because they haven’t heard from their loved one and they just assume that person has died,” Scaife said.
Some trends in New York state go unnoticed for months because of the lack of real-time updates, records reveal.
Six of the 16 suicides in 2021 occurred at the Elmira Correctional Facility. That figure came to light only after the Correctional Association filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the state Office of Mental Health.
Correctional Association staff then conducted a two-day monitoring visit at the prison, where they questioned state officials and other incarcerated people about the situation. Based on that, the group released a report of findings and recommendations that includes a statement of actions being taken to prevent future suicides.
A recent development will shed more light on prison deaths. In April, the Commission on Correction, the state panel that investigates all lockups throughout New York, began sharing death reports each month with the Correctional Association.
‘I Was Panicking’
As for Israel Ayala, he was scheduled to be released in February, but he decided against seeking medical parole or a compassionate release because he figured it would take months before state officials reviewed his application, according to his wife.
She last spoke with her husband the night before his death, and he promised to call back the next day, Mary Ayala recalled.
A prison social worker notified her about his passing the next morning at around 8 a.m., she said. The social worker told her she had 48 hours to retrieve his body or else it would be buried in a prison cemetery.
“I was panicking,” she said.
It cost nearly $1,000 for a funeral home to pick up his body and move it to the Throggs Neck cemetery where his mother is buried, Mary Ayala said.
“Just because they are prisoners doesn’t mean they don’t have family,” she said. “They’d neglect him even more if I didn’t call to ask about him.”
Notified by Chance
As for Rikers Island, the change in policy was quietly enacted just as a federal monitor overseeing the department criticized Correction Commissioner Louis Molina and his team for failing to properly inform the monitor about a recent death — as well as four other “serious and disturbing incidents involving harm to incarcerated persons.”
Over the past two years, the department’s public information media team would issue a press release announcing the death of anyone behind bars. The release typically included basic information like the person’s name, housing facility, date and time of death.
Prison and jail officials throughout the country handle death notifications differently.
In Texas, prison supervisors have to report deaths to the state’s attorney general and the information is a public record. The Florida correction department posts online notifications of each death, listing the facility where it occurred.
Additionally, all lockups throughout the country must report deaths to the federal government. But that information isn’t posted online on a rolling basis or in any other real-time way the public can access, Armstrong said.
In New York, defense lawyers representing state prisoners are frequently notified about deaths “by chance” via a family member or another incarcerated person in the same facility, said Stefen Short, acting deputy director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of The Legal Aid Society.
“It can’t be that oversight agencies and journalists and legal organizations and advocacy organizations learn about what’s going on behind the walls, just by chance,” Short said. “There have to be clear statutory mechanisms, and policies and rules and regulations in place that provide real-time information.
“Otherwise, our ability to change systems is just going to be at the whim of whether we are lucky enough to get information and we’re not going to get better prisons through mechanisms like that.”