- Associated Press - Thursday, October 2, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - Cathy Erica Potler, a longtime human rights advocate who began her career documenting abuses in Latin America and ended it as the head of the New York City agency charged with overseeing Rikers Island and other New York City jails, has died. She was 61.

Her longtime partner, Martin Vega, said she passed away on Sept. 21 from non-small cell lung cancer.

“She was an astounding person,” he said. “She just had this immense heart and a total commitment to making sure that the inmates had access to health care and that their rights were being respected.”

In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Potler worked in Central American conflict zones such as Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador for various groups, including the New York-based National Lawyers Guild.

In 1981, as a lawyer for the human rights group Survival International, she submitted a 62-page complaint to the United Nations that documented the persecution of the Toba-Maskoy indigenous group by the Paraguayan government.

Back in New York, she worked as the lead investigator with the Correctional Association of New York, traveling across the state to inspect prison conditions. One of her most influential reports, done in 1988, documented the inadequate health care prisoners with AIDS were receiving.

She joined the New York City Board of Correction, the independent agency charged with overseeing city jails, in 1991.

She worked tirelessly, her colleagues said, visiting Rikers at all times of the day and night to ensure that health care standards were being met and inmate rights respected.

“Cathy Potler devoted her entire life to the service of others, particularly the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our city, the inmates,” said Gordon Campbell, the board’s chairman. “She was a voice for hundreds of thousands of men and women in our city who passed through our jails over the past two decades.”

Potler is survived by Vega, as well as a son, Natan Vega Potler, and other family. A memorial service will be held Nov. 1.

In lieu of flowers, her family asks instead for donations to be made in her name for non-small cell lung cancer research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

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