A 31-year-old man named Joshua Valles died at Elmhurst Hospital Saturday after suffering a medical episode while in custody on Rikers Island, becoming the third detainee in city jails to die this year, amidst pushback by the Adams administration to a damning report by the federal monitor overseeing city jails and new calls for a federal takeover.
Valles was the 22nd detainee in city jails to die since Eric Adams became mayor in January 2022.
The 31-year-old’s case had been highlighted, albeit anonymously, in last week’s report by federal monitor Steve Martin. Valles had reportedly complained to medical staff at the Anna M. Kross Center about headaches and been transported on his own volition to Elmhurst Hospital, where Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina reported he “quickly took a turn for the worse” and was placed on life support before succumbing on May 27.
The monitor’s team reports only learning of Valles’ medical episode through an “external allegation.” Pressed by the monitor, the department reported he suffered a suspected heart attack and was “not a use of force case.” But the monitor says they can’t independently verify the department’s conclusions due to insufficient information provided to them.
“It is unclear how the Department was able to reach the conclusion that there was ‘no Departmental wrongdoing’ given the limited information available about the underlying incident,” reads the report. “As the Monitoring Team received no further details regarding the incident other than that which is stated herein, the Monitoring Team is unable to assess the incident and the veracity of the Department’s claims.”
Molina says that Valles was compassionately released on May 24, after he was already on life support at the hospital, and the department is not considering his to be a death in custody. DOC denies that it wasn’t forthcoming with information on Valles’ medical episode and eventual death.
“Your letter criticizes the Department for not making ‘other details regarding the incident . . . available to the Monitoring Team,'” Molina wrote to the monitoring team. “But that criticism is also misplaced. We know of no other details; you know what we know about the case.”
On Tuesday, Hell Gate reported that Valles’ autopsy showed he had fractured his skull, a detail that had not been reported publicly by DOC.
Valles’ demise was just one of a number of troubling recent incidents highlighted in the monitor’s report to the judge overseeing the Rikers consent decree, Laura Swain. It describes a “troubling state of affairs” in city jails of both shocking violence and a lack of transparency by DOC to report such incidents to the monitor.
A 52-year-old inmate at the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island, Rubu Zhao, was taken to Elmhurst Hospital on May 14 after jumping down a stairwell in an apparent suicide attempt, succumbing on May 16. Molina says Zhao left a note but had not displayed suicidal ideation beforehand, leaving little room for intervention, but the monitor claims not to have heard of the incident until 33 hours after it took place, concurrently with a report of Zhao’s death.
Forty-year-old inmate James Carlton was paralyzed from the neck down after being tackled by staffers when he ran out of an elevator at the Vernon C. Bain Center in the Bronx, also known as The Barge. Surveillance video of the incident showed Carlton’s face covered in blood. Later, as officers assisted him in putting on his shoes while his legs were shackled, Carlton’s leg was seen jerking before he was tackled to the floor, unable to break his fall due to the cuffs and repeatedly hitting his head.
The monitor team wasn’t notified until nearly two weeks later. DOC claims Carlton’s condition arose from a pre-existing condition of “spinal stenosis,” but the monitor says the “basis for the Department’s claim is unknown and its veracity and accuracy are questionable.”
In another incident, a man in a crowded intake was jumped by other inmates, left naked in a holding pen for three hours, and ultimately taken to hospital where he was intubated and found to have suffered a ruptured spleen and broken ribs. The monitor wasn’t informed for nearly three days.
“In each of the cases highlighted in this report, the Monitoring Team was not proactively advised by the Department and the Monitoring Team either learned of the incident through allegations made by credible external sources or media reports,” the report reads. “The Monitoring Team has advised the City and the Department of its concerns and that immediate steps must be taken to address them.”
The report even notes that Molina himself tried to stop the report’s publication, arguing it would cause “great harm [to the Department] at a time when we are making great strides.”
Martin’s team wrote that the DOC is not sharing information on the incidents in a timely manner, which “calls in to question the overall veracity of the Department’s incident reporting.”
“There is significant cause for concern about the imminent risk of harm to people in custody and concomitant practice failures by the Department,” the report reads. “The issues raised in this Special Report raise profound uncertainties and significant questions about whether the Commissioner and agency officials are capable of managing such serious incidents, have the requisite objectivity and transparency necessary to address such incidents and advance the reforms, and are capable of engaging in effective collaboration with the Monitoring Team.”
In a statement, Molina claimed that DOC was in a better position today than it had been under the de Blasio administration.
“Over the last 18 months, we have dramatically reduced violence, eliminated rampant absenteeism, improved critical aspects of our training, infused outside correctional expertise into our ranks, significantly improved court production, and made Rikers Island safer for every person in our custody and every single officer,” said Molina. “Simply put, the Department of Correction is in a much better place today than it was during the last administration. We have brought this organization back from the brink of collapse and we will not be deterred in continuing our good work.”
Nonetheless, 2022 saw the largest number of detainee deaths in a decade, at 19. Judge Swain rejected calls by advocates and elected officials for the federal government to take over jail operations after the monitor reported progress on outstanding issues last year. But the monitor’s new report has led to renewed calls for a receivership, including from two of the three citywide elected officials, Comptroller Brad Lander and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
“It is clear that when it comes to protecting people on both sides of the bars and correcting the crisis conditions on Rikers, after over a year of purported reforms, this administration has earned neither the trust nor the confidence it shows in this area,” Williams said. “They did not create the longstanding issues on Rikers, but despite any efforts they have undertaken, patterns of abuse, neglect, secrecy and misinformation have continued.”
In 2017, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to shutting down all jail operations on the island within a decade, and in 2019, the City Council passed an $8 billion plan requiring the closure of the island’s jails by 2026 and replacing them with four “borough-based” jails in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.
Still, the city’s inmate population has increased under Adams: 6,024 people were in DOC custody at the beginning of this month, according to the City Comptroller’s office, a 22% increase over the low of 4,921 seen in 2021, the last year of de Blasio’s mayoralty.