New York City

Rikers officials chip away at transparency measures

The Department of Correction has not recently continued a practice of notifying the press of deaths in the city’s jails.

Recent deaths on Rikers Island have caused protesters to call for more transparency from jail leaders.

Recent deaths on Rikers Island have caused protesters to call for more transparency from jail leaders. Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress/Getty Images

Still facing a possible federal takeover, the New York City Department of Correction has recently rolled back several practices intended to hold the embattled jail system accountable, including no longer notifying the press when someone who is incarcerated dies.

The reversal of the de Blasio-era practice, first reported by The City on May 31, was a drastic move. Last year, 19 people in city jails died in custody or shortly after being released – the highest rate of death in two decades. In 2023 so far, three people are known to have died at Rikers.

It was also the latest move that some lawmakers and criminal justice advocates said erodes transparency and accountability in New York City jails. In January, officials barred the Board of Correction – which oversees the Correction Department – from independently accessing video surveillance footage of Rikers Island and other city jails. (The board is still able to request access to surveillance video and view it at a designated location.)

A special report filed by federal monitor Steve Martin late last week also highlighted five serious incidents that occurred in the jails, including one death and several serious injuries, which the monitoring team said made it question the department’s commitment to transparency. The report said the incidents “raised serious concerns about the city’s and department’s ability to accurately and timely report serious and/or life-altering injuries, to safely manage the individuals in its custody, commitment to transparency and to engage, collaborate with, and provide the Monitoring Team with timely and accurate information.” On top of that, Correction Department Commissioner Louis Molina urged the federal monitor not to release the report, according to the Daily News. In a letter to the monitor, Molina objected to the characterization of the department’s communication with and reporting to the monitoring team as lacking, adding the department regularly communicates with the team and tries to do so in a timely and accurate manner.

While advocates contended that the department has long attempted to restrict information about internal wrongdoing and its operations, many feel officials’ lack of transparency has escalated in recent months under an emboldened Molina and the Adams administration.

“I’m not sure that there is a grand plan,” said MK Kaishian, an attorney with New York City-based civil rights firm Kaishian & Mortazavi. “I think it’s hubris. I think it’s disregard for the lives of people in their custody. And I think they feel above our demands for answers – for accountability, for transparency – which these families deserve at the bare minimum, but really which everyone in the city deserves.”

At an unrelated press conference on Thursday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams did not directly respond when asked if he supported the decision by the department to not report deaths to the press, but he threw his support behind Molina’s leadership. “Commissioner Molina has been an amazing commissioner,” Adams said. “I remember when I inherited this, when I pulled in Commissioner Molina, we were having a substantial number of (Correction staff) who were out sick, not coming to work. … Molina has turned it around. And I support him to do the job I hired him to do. And whatever methods he needs to do it within the boundaries of not violating any laws or rights of people, I support.”

The department has said it is committed to transparency and noted that a series of notifications still takes place.

“All appropriate internal investigations and required notifications to oversight and outside agencies always take place immediately,” Correction Department spokesperson Frank Dwyer wrote in an email. “Next of kin and the deceased individual’s legal counsel are notified as well. The Commissioner believes in following the rules, and the department is in compliance with all rules and laws and that practice has never stopped. The Commissioner wants to respect those who have transitioned while also continuing to be as transparent as possible.”

Deaths in custody are reported to the Department of Correction’s health affairs unit, special investigations unit, chaplains and legal team. Notifications also go out to the city Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the Department of Investigation, the state attorney general’s office, the Board of Correction and the state Commission of Correction, according to the department. A department spokesperson wrote that City & State could still be “proactively notified of deaths in custody,” despite the recently announced change.

Advocates were worried that Molina’s decision will have rippling ramifications. Public defenders in other large cities have expressed concerns that Molina’s decision to no longer publicize deaths in custody will cause a chain reaction, according to Kaishian.

The Adams administration has been trying to stave off a federal takeover of Rikers Island in the form of a federal receivership. Currently, the jails system operates under the oversight of a court-appointed federal monitor, but a federal receivership would turn over control of the jails to a federal authority. Despite calls from other elected officials – and even the Department of Correction’s former commissioner – to accede to a receivership, a judge who would make that call has not yet indicated that that will happen. The judge did, however, schedule a mid-June hearing to address new concerns raised by the monitor.

Still, the news that the department will not be reporting deaths in custody to the public caused some to renew calls for a federal takeover. City Comptroller Brad Lander said he was “horrified” to learn that the department would not be reporting deaths as it had in the past. City Council Member Tiffany Cabán called the development “horrific.”

Lander’s office publishes a regularly updated dashboard on the city’s jails with data including the jails population, assaults on staff and, until Thursday, the number of deaths in custody this year. Now, that last metric reads “Unknown.” “The history of problems at Rikers is long,” Lander said. “That is not just on the Adams administration. Through the de Blasio administration and long before that, Rikers is a long-brewing humanitarian crisis. But the answer, if you’re saying you’re going to fix it, is to provide clear and transparent data so people can see whether it’s getting better.”

Cabán described the decision to stop notifying the public of deaths at city jails as part of a “clear strategy around avoiding any semblance of accountability,” describing the department as undermining the oversight bodies assigned to them.Asked whether the City Council would consider any steps to require more thorough reporting or transparency guidelines by the Correction Department, Cabán said she expected that council members would be brainstorming legislative interventions. “But at the end of the day, the big thing that needs to be done is to close Rikers,” she said.

Even before officials’ recent moves to chip away at transparency, advocates questioned the accuracy of the data and other information being released by the department. Those concerns have only grown following the special report and the decision to no longer share information about deaths with the public, according to Eileen Maher, a Civil Rights Union leader with VOCAL-NY.

“What else has (Molina) gotten away with keeping out of reports in the past, especially when it comes to people who don’t have a lot of people on the outside,” Maher said. “I just don’t believe the numbers anymore.”

Kaishian said she didn’t think advocates needed to necessarily rely on the Department of Correction for information, but the city needs to “foster and honor the existing information pipelines in and out of Rikers Island.”

“I think (officials) underestimate the power of the people in their custody and the people who love and care about them,” Kaishian said. “(The Department of Correction) is in possession of a lot of significant information that should be made public. But if we continue to listen to the people inside, and the people who have been inside, and the people who are currently speaking with people inside, there is a flow of information.”