On Monday, August 27, the New York City Department of Correction trumpeted “a major step forward in our goal of transparency” as it unveiled a new statistical reporting tool. The idea that the notoriously secretive Department of Correction might be pivoting towards transparency was almost enough to make one overlook the fact that the department had almost certainly copied the tool and stolen credit for it, launching as it did mere days before the comptroller’s office unveiled its own platform. But the events of the past week call DOC’s commitment to transparency into question.
Just a few days after DOC Commissioner Louis Molina was boasting of his commitment to transparency, Michael Nieves, a 40-year-old man being held in Rikers’s most heavily staffed psychiatric facility, checked out a razor and cut his own throat. No staff had noted that he had failed to return the razor, nor was he checked by the guards who were supposed to be assuring his safety. According to reports, Nieves bled out, on camera, on the floor of his cell while “two officers and their captain watched for at least 10 minutes.”
By the early hours of last Friday morning, Nieves was at Elmhurst Hospital, brain-dead and on life support.
This past Monday, before news of what had happened to Nieves was widely known outside of the Department of Correction, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Comptroller Brad Lander, and City Councilmember Carlina Rivera made a surprise visit to Rikers, exercising their prerogative as elected officials to tour some of the jails on the island. None of the DOC officials conducting the tour saw fit to tell the people’s elected representatives that in fact, less than three days prior, and in the jail facility that is specifically meant to protect people with mental illness, a man had slit his own throat.
Completely unaware of Nieves’s fate, Williams, Lander, and Rivera emerged from Rikers to helm a press conference and tell New Yorkers what they’d seen. They offered a measured critique of the conditions they had witnessed, but were pleased to report that conditions were considerably improved from what they had witnessed on a similar tour last September. Asked if any of them were actively supporting a federal takeover of the City’s jails, they all said no.
The politicians aren't happy DOC didn't fill them in. While on the tour, “I had specifically asked DOC about suicide watch and DOC assured us that they were adequately staffed and under control,” Lander told Hell Gate. “Clearly that was not the case.”
Williams, who also learned of Nieves’s injury and subsequent death only after the tour and press conference, also criticized DOC’s secrecy. “This is an example of DOC having an opportunity to provide transparency about what's occurring at Rikers in between inspections, and failing to do so,” he told Hell Gate.
Hell Gate reached out to the Department of Correction to ask if this lack of disclosure is representative of its professed commitment to transparency; DOC did not respond.
The future of Rikers was also on the mind of Mayor Eric Adams. Hours after Lander, Williams, and Rivera held their presser, Adams attended a press conference at which he was asked about Rikers. The mayor first praised DOC Commissioner Molina, and stressed that conditions on Rikers are improving. He then defended the number of people held on Rikers under his administration—a number greater than would allow New York City to follow through on its commitment to close the Rikers complex—arguing that violent criminals have to be put somewhere. “People who commit violent crimes should be removed from society. And they commit violent crimes while they are removed from society, they need to go somewhere so they don't hurt people again,” Adams said. “What do we do with those that continue to do shootings, robberies, assaults, rapes, and other crimes?”
Did Adams know, while he was arguing that more people must be held on Rikers in order to prevent harm, that the jail complex he was defending had just claimed yet another life? Did DOC tell the mayor what had happened to Nieves at all? Hell Gate asked the mayor’s office these questions, and received no response.
Tuesday night, relying on its own reporting, the New York Times broke the news of Nieves’s hospitalization. Minutes after the story went live, Nieves was taken off life support and pronounced dead, becoming the thirteenth person to lose his life while in DOC custody this year. At this rate, even more people will die this year on Rikers under the Adams administration than died there last year under de Blasio.
When the Times story was updated to include a statement from Molina, he made no mention of the fact that Nieves was dead. It was only after the paper published an updated story reporting that Nieves had died that the Department of Correction finally acknowledged the death, in an announcement that included no mention of the circumstances that led to it.
Nieves’s suicide is captured nowhere in the data presented on the department’s new transparency tool.