The family of a gay 24-year-old who died at Rikers Island earlier this month is demanding answers about the circumstances surrounding his death — the 12th death of an inmate in custody at New York City’s chief jail this year.
Esias “Izzy” Johnson, a Massachusetts native who had moved to New York after meeting a man online, was found dead in his cell at Rikers at 9:45 a.m. on September 7, after reportedly spending an entire month trying — unsuccessfully — to get released on $1 bail. He was arrested on a misdemeanor menacing charge in New York City, but was sent to Rikers after police saw he had a warrant out for his arrest stemming from a separate case in New Jersey.
Johnson’s mother, Tracy, told the New York Daily News earlier this month that she had trouble trying to post bail online, and that even though her son had commissary money to pay the bail, he ran into several procedural hurdles, including the need to be seen by a judge in New Jersey — at least virtually, if not in person.
“He said he had problems with his court dates,” Johnson told Gay City News last week. “He wasn’t being taken to them. He had a date on the 18th of August and I gave him all the info. He passed all the information to the appropriate people. It was a phone court appointment, but they never set it up for him. He said, ‘I’m missing court dates like crazy, Mom, they’re not doing anything.'”
The family’s lawyer, Jamie Santana, told the Daily News that the failure to produce detainees for court has been a growing problem at Rikers in recent months due to an increase in inmates and a chronic understaffing problem that means correctional officers who show up to work often end up working extended hours and taking on more responsibilities than they can handle.
Johnson’s mother tried to contact officials in New Jersey, where his court dates were based, but was told they couldn’t do anything to help.
The circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death are also puzzling. According to Johnson’s mother, inmates at Rikers came forward to say her son had been complaining of stomach pain for days, and had screamed for help throughout the night before his death, and was unable get out of bed in the morning.
“We do believe that Rikers Island was negligent with respect to the duty of care,” Santana said. “It certainly appears they failed at providing any medical attention.”
The New York City medical examiner’s office told Gay City News that the cause and manner of Johnson’s death requires “further studies.” A Daily News report had claimed Johnson died from a fatal overdose, but Johnson’s family says they have not been informed of any official cause of death, and have requested a toxicology report.
“I think they put a drug overdose [as the cause of death] to cover up that they weren’t taking care of him or helping him,” Tracy Johnson said, adding that Esias also had Asperger’s syndrome and suffered from social anxiety.
Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said in a written statement that “the circumstances surrounding this death will receive a full investigation.” However, a department spokesperson denied that DOC failed to make sure Johnson attended court appointments. That spokesperson also did not respond to a request for comment from Gay City News asking about Johnson’s complaints of stomach pain.
For now, Johnson’s family remains in limbo, awaiting additional information about his death and demanding accountability on the part of prison officials.
“We are going to try our very best to pursue the highest level of accountability,” Santana, the family’ lawyer, said. “Unfortunately, no amount of justice will bring back Esias.”
The accounts surrounding Johnson’s death are reminiscent of those surrounding the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco, a Black trans woman who was incarcerated at Rikers and died after suffering an epileptic seizure after being placed in solitary confinement. The city ultimately reached a $5.9 million settlement with Polanco’s family after an investigation revealed she did not receive necessary medical care in time to save her life, leading Mayor Bill de Blasio to suspend 17 correctional officers.
“Rikers is a death trap,” Beverly Tillery, the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, said in a statement. “We have been sounding the alarm about the dangers at Rikers for several years now, but despite pledges to close the facility, city officials continue to drag their feet, leaving thousands of New Yorkers in peril. Esias Johnson and Layleen Polanco should have been released on bail, but instead were left to languish at Rikers for weeks with no end in sight.
“LGBTQ people, especially those who are transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, and people of color, face severe criminalization and violence from police, and then when incarcerated, experience homophobic or transphobic violence from other incarcerated people and/or guards,” Tillery added. “[W]e need swift and definitive action to protect those we have put in grave danger.”
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