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Rikers Officials Said Joshua Valles Had a Heart Attack. His Autopsy Revealed a Fractured Skull

"But for the bail rollbacks, Joshua would have been alive today."

An aerial view of Rikers Island.

An aerial view of Rikers Island. (USGS / Wikimedia)

A 31-year-old man who Rikers officials claimed had suffered a heart attack while in custody died Saturday at North Shore Long Island Jewish Medical Center, and an autopsy shows that he had a fractured skull, according to people familiar with the case. 

Joshua Valles was being held on Rikers on May 20 when he complained to staff about headaches. According to a statement from the Department of Correction to the court-appointed monitor overseeing efforts to reduce violence in New York City jails, Valles "left the unit on his own power," but "quickly took a turn for the worse: he was placed on life support."

Valles and his sudden ill health and hospitalization was one of five cases highlighted anonymously in a report published Friday by the court monitor Steve Martin, which he said raised serious concerns both about safety in NYC jails and about the Department of Correction's transparency and cooperation with the court-ordered monitor process. 

Martin learned that something had happened to Valles not from the Department of Correction, but from an external source. Pressed on what had happened, DOC staff told the monitor that Valles "appeared to sustain a heart attack and that the Department does not suspect that any foul play occurred." Correction Commissioner Louis Molina told the monitor that there was "no official wrongdoing."

Presented with no other information, Martin was skeptical. "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," he wrote in his report to the court. "The Monitoring Team is unable to assess the incident and the veracity of the Department's claims."

Martin was particularly troubled, he wrote in his report, that Molina urged him not to report on what happened to Valles or other concerning incidents during recent weeks involving harm to people in custody. 

In a letter to the monitor, Molina warned Martin that filing the report would cause "great harm [to the Department] at a time when we are making great strides," and that such a report "will fuel the flames of those who believe that we cannot govern ourselves. Can that really be said about…[what happened to] Valles?"

The DOC did not answer questions posed in an email, instead responding with a statement from Commissioner Molina that read in part, "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."

The revelation that Valles had a fractured skull, confirmed by multiple people familiar with the autopsy report, raises further questions about the DOC's initial suggestion that he simply suffered a heart attack, and raises the possibility that instead, he fell victim to the endemic violence of Rikers Island that was deemed so severe in the federal lawsuit that gave rise to the monitorship eight years ago that it constitutes a violation of the constitutional rights of the people held there.

Stan Germán, the executive director of New York County Defender Services, who represented Valles in his criminal case, told Hell Gate that after Valles was admitted to the hospital, doctors ordered a CT scan of his brain and found significant swelling and signs of possible brain injury.

"He had significant brain damage," Germán said. "What we're hearing now about a cracked skull as part of the autopsy seems to suggest that something happened to him on Rikers Island that led to his death."

The Office of the Medical Examiner, which conducted the autopsy on Valles, did not respond to questions Tuesday night.

Valles had been lucid and engaged throughout his time on Rikers, Germán said. He was eager to get into a program that would offer him the treatment that he needed, and he was in regular communication with his mother, brother and sister.

After four days in the hospital, and still in custody, it became increasingly clear that Valles was effectively brain-dead and would not recover. On May 24, his family petitioned the court to adjust his bail status, and he was released from custody, Germán said, though at this point the distinction was negligible: He remained unresponsive in a hospital bed. Valles had been a registered organ donor, and on May 27 his organs were harvested and he was taken off life support. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, Germán said, Valles's mother and siblings had never been contacted by the Department of Correction, either to notify them of their son's health crisis or to offer condolences.

Whatever happened to Valles on Rikers that led to his death, he would not have been there at all but for bail reform rollbacks demanded by Governor Kathy Hochul and passed by the state legislature. 

Valles's addiction drove him to theft, Germán said, and he already had an open case for possession of stolen property and a stolen credit card from February when he was arrested again on April 7 and charged with burglary in the third degree. Both crimes are nonviolent, and neither, on their own, would have warranted bail. But because both offenses involved "harm" to the property of another, his second arrest triggered the "harm-on-harm" analysis pushed through the legislature by Hochul during the 2022 budget process in Albany, making him eligible for bail. Using the new latitude, Valles's judge set a $10,000 bail in his case. Valles did not have sufficient wealth to buy his freedom, and so he went to Rikers, and to his death.

"There are consequences to what Albany does," Germán said. "It would appear that the message every time we have a bail rollback from Albany to judges is, 'We don't have enough people in jail.' There are repercussions for that. But for the bail rollbacks, Joshua would be alive today."

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