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De Blasio Calls for ‘Full Accounting’ of NYC Inmates Who Died of COVID after Testing Positive in Jail

Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference at City Hall, March 10, 2021.
Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Bill de Blasio committed Wednesday to a “full accounting” of people who died of COVID-19 after contracting the virus in city jails.

His pledge followed an investigation by Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and THE CITY that identified three men who contracted the virus in local lockups — but did not get counted in the Department of Correction’s official death tally.

Corrections Commissioner Cynthia Brann has highlighted that “only three” people have died in city jails during the pandemic. The new findings bring the death toll to at least six.

The three men who died following their release from DOC custody were transferred directly to hospital care from city jails, according to family members, attorneys and records.

Juan Cruz died on June 11 at age 57, after contracting the coronavirus on the Vernon C. Bain jail barge in The Bronx while ordered detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Juan Cruz, who died of COVID at Bellevue Hospital after being moved to the medical center from a Bronx jail barge for treatment.
Juan Cruz
Courtesy of Cruz Family

Joel Howard, who died on April 16 at age 60, and Raymond Rivera, 55, who died on April 3 at age 55, both succumbed to the virus within 24 hours of their release.

Cruz died a week and a half after he was released from both DOC and ICE custody. All three men died at Bellevue Hospital after being sent there from city jails.

‘The Whole Picture’

De Blasio said his administration will search for all such cases. “I’m instructing the Department of Correction to go back and look at not just inmates, who God forbid passed away in custody, but anyone who passed away in the time immediately after,” the mayor said.

“I want a full accounting quickly of what happened with anyone who was released so that we see the whole picture and we’ll make sure to make that public,” he added.

The mayor stopped short of saying an investigation was warranted — even after previously calling for a special commission to probe a similar pattern at New York’s nursing homes, in which Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health department counted only fatalities that took place on premises.

“It’s a very, very different situation than the nursing homes to say the least,” said de Blasio.

“What we’ve seen with the nursing homes is deeply troubling with systematic efforts to cover up obviously huge mistakes. Here, we have an accounting that I want to get right.”

‘Sincere Condolences’

The mayor’s statement comes as local public defender groups are calling for an independent statewide investigation into the number of inmates who died from the virus post release.

“NYC finally acknowledged the link between COVID spread in jail and related deaths after release,” Brooklyn Defender Services tweeted following the mayor’s press conference. “We demand an independent investigation. We need the whole truth.”

The mayor’s call for the DOC to examine post-release coronavirus deaths also comes two days after THE CITY revealed the findings of an unreleased report from the Board of Correction, which oversees city jails, on the three coronavirus deaths of individuals in custody.

The report found that crowded conditions, a scarcity of masks, and denial of medical treatment contributed to the deaths.

On Wednesday, the city Board of Correction, which sets and monitors jail standards, acknowledged the deaths of Cruz, Howard and Rivera in a statement to THE CITY.

“The Board expresses its sincere condolences to the families and friends of these men,” Board of Correction Executive Director Meg Egan wrote.

“Fully understanding the circumstances that led to these deaths is critical to learning lessons and implementing reforms,” she added. “In order to prevent virus transmission in the jails, we believe it is essential to decarcerate, remain vigilant in mask use, and ensure that all people in custody and staff are able to receive the vaccine as soon as possible.”

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