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Did Litchfield Prison Officials’ Delay in Reporting a Death Violate New York Law?

In the season four finale of Orange is the New Black, tensions between guards and inmates came to a head. The inmates joined together in an “Oh Captain, My Captain” style peaceful protest – all standing atop tables in the cafeteria during dinner. However, the peaceful protest soon turned tragic when reviled guard, Piscatella, orders the other guards to pull the women down off the tables. Fans watched in horror and disbelief as beloved character, Poussey Washington, was crushed to death in the chaos that ensues. As the other inmates mourn Poussey’s death, viewers watched prison director, Joe Caputo, struggle with the bureaucracy of MCC, the private corporation that runs the prison, and their delay in reporting Poussey’s death to the authorities and her family. In the end, Poussey’s dead body lays on the floor in the cafeteria for almost a full day before the coroner comes to collect it.

One of the central themes of the episode is the implied disrespect of leaving Poussey’s body on the floor for a full day. The other inmates’ and Caputo’s reactions to MCC’s failure to immediately notify authorities and remove the body mirror the assumption present in American culture that a death must be immediately reported and that there is something inherently wrong with having a corpse stay at the location of death for any length of time. 

While the specific circumstances of Poussey’s death during a prison riot did seem to require more immediate action, the law in the state of New York, the location of the fictional prison, requires that a death be registered “immediately and not later than seventy-two hours after death.” So, while it appears that the prison should have contacted the coroner “immediately” after Poussey’s death, because the coroner van arrived at the prison approximately twenty-four hours after her death – within the required seventy-two hour time frame – it seems that prison officials did not violate New York law.

Elizabeth DeFrance

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