When inmates are received by the DOC, a lot of information is collected, including our asking the inmate who he/she wants to be notified in the event of an accident, injury, serious illness or even death. Whomever the inmate provides is whom the DOC will contact.
The misconception is that this person is an actual blood relative of the inmate. However, that may not be the case. The only person the DOC can release information to about an inmate is the person the inmate identified.
So, let's talk about an inmate's death and notification. When an inmate dies, DOC officials would notify the emergency contact that the inmate has identified.
This can cause problems when, for example, the inmate's girlfriend is the emergency contact. Only she would be notified. The inmate's mother, brother or uncle would not. It depends on who the inmate provided to DOC officials.
So, when you see reports or accounts that an inmate's family wasn't notified of an illness or death, this could be the rational explanation.
It also should be noted that the DOC keeps detailed records of conversations with people about a specific inmate's medical information, including contacting the emergency contact.
To help families with this situation, families should work with their incarcerated loved ones to make sure an actual blood relative is listed as an emergency contact. But in the end, it is up to the inmate to make the decision.
Once the inmate provides his/her emergency contact information, and if that person is not a blood relative, others can work with the inmate to have an "Authorization for Release of Information" form signed by the inmate in advance, allowing the release of information to that person also. This information is then kept on file along with the emergency contact information.
Sometimes people confuse emergency contact with next of kin. They are not the same.