The Legal Aid Society, a non-profit legal aid organization, publicly condemned Mayor Eric Adams as well as the city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Louis Molina Tuesday over the two most recent in-custody deaths.
Gregory Acevedo and Robert Pondexter were both Legal Aid clients and died in DOC custody, with Acevedo dying after being found in the East River on Sept. 20 and Pondexter suffering a catastrophic medical emergency in custody and dying Sept. 22.
Acevedo and Pondexter were the 15th and 16th people to die in DOC custody this year.
“Words cannot express our sadness and outrage over the passing of clients Gregory Acevedo and Robert Pondexter,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement Sept. 27. “The circumstances surrounding these deaths warrant an immediate investigation and transparency. With each death this year, City Hall and DOC leadership have stonewalled the public and refused to provide timely and accurate information. The information provided by the New York City Board of Correction (BOC), the oversight body, suggests a reason City Hall has attempted such authoritarian control of information: the deaths in custody reviewed by BOC show a shocking incompetence and failure of DOC to carry out basic correctional duties.”
Pondexter was granted a compassionate release after he experienced a medical emergency, and his death was not counted by the DOC as having occurred in custody.
The New York Times obtained an email from Commissioner Molina to subordinates directing them to “make sure we do what we can” to ensure that Pondexter’s death was “off the Department’s count” by pushing for a compassionate release.
“At first we were happy he died with dignity, and we knew he wouldn’t die a prisoner,” said Aquandra Morris, one of Pondexter’s children, in The New York Times report. “But, then I thought about it. Something is not right. They are trying to relinquish their responsibility.”
The Legal Aid Society argued that with the mounting death tolls in NYC jails, neither Commissioner Molina nor Mayor Adams were ensuring the safety of incarcerated people.
“Mayor Adams and Commissioner Molina have demonstrated that they will not or cannot keep people safe in local jails,” the Legal Aid Society said. “They have forfeited any claim of legitimate authority to incarcerate, and broken the public trust, underscoring the need for appointment of a receiver and a complete overhaul of this agency and its entrenched culture of incompetence and violence. For the District Attorneys of New York to continue to condemn people to these dangerous facilities is unconscionable, and we again call on all criminal legal system stakeholders to facilitate the immediate decarceration of local jails.”
Following the Legal Aid Society’s condemnation, NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams issued a statement on the most recent deaths.
“Sixteen people have died after being held in city custody, already as many as died in all of 2021 amid what we all knew were crisis conditions,” Williams said on Tuesday. “The department’s reported actions in this case do not change that, and they will only lead more to question both the ability and the priorities of the city to improve the state and conditions of city jails. If this was an attempt at a coverup, as reported, it failed – as badly as the department has failed to meet its mandate to ensure basic safety. In this instance, it seems they were more concerned with protecting themselves than the people in their custody.”
Mayor Adams responded to the deaths and to speculation about Commissioner Molina’s conduct at a press conference on Tuesday.
“The way we are giving the impression of what Commissioner Molina did, it’s just sending the wrong message,” said Adams. “This commissioner, Molina is probably the most compassionate commissioner that we ever had at the Department of Correction. So he used the technical term to get the person off the corrections count. Meaning when you get that person off the corrections umbrella of compassionate care, you are now allowing family members to go visit him, be around him or her in a dignified manner without correction officers all around when the person is at the end of his life.”
A DOC spokesperson clarified to amNew York that the department itself is not responsible for granting compassionate releases, and that NYC courts ultimately make the decision. The spokesperson also stated that Commissioner Molina’s language in his email was misinterpreted.
“Let’s be clear – the Department strongly supports compassionate release only because it allows for family members to spend time with the individual when they need the most care and support, and never to influence departmental statistics,” the spokesperson said on Tuesday. “The language used by Commissioner Molina in that email is technical in nature – removing someone off the departments ‘count’ allows for them to spend time with their family with maximum privacy, unaccompanied by DOC staff. Suggesting it was an effort to improve DOC statistics is both incorrect and offensive.”
Last updated on 9/27/2022 3:15 pm