Death toll rises: William Johnstone becomes sixth fatality in NYC jails this year

July 18, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
Rikers Island complex
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William Johnstone, a detainee at Rikers Island, became the sixth person to die in New York City’s Department of Correction (DOC) custody this year, triggering renewed calls for reform from the Brooklyn Defender Services and New York County Defender Services.

Johnstone, 47, was discovered unresponsive in his cell at the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island on Saturday afternoon, according to a DOC spokesperson. Despite being swiftly transported to Mount Sinai Queens Hospital in Astoria, he was pronounced deceased at 3:50 p.m.

The circumstances surrounding Johnstone’s death remain uncertain, pending a determination by the city’s Medical Examiner. However, the tragic event has exacerbated concerns regarding the city’s incarceration system, particularly given the recent spate of deaths in custody.

Johnstone had been detained at Rikers Island since March on unaffordable bail, following his arrest for robbery charges in Brooklyn and parole violations in Manhattan. According to DOC records, his bail was set at $39,998, or a bond of $149,998.

In a joint statement, Brooklyn Defender Services and New York County Defender Services expressed their dismay, pointing to the escalating death toll in DOC custody since the start of 2022.

“It is abhorrent that twenty-five New Yorkers have lost their lives in DOC custody since the beginning of 2022. We are angered and saddened that the Department of Correction’s failure to protect the health and safety of people in its custody has resulted in the death of yet another New Yorker, the third in the past three weeks,” the statement read.

The defender services, which had represented Johnstone, criticized the criminal justice system’s continued use of unaffordable bail, accusing the city of criminalizing poverty and mental illness.

They were joined in their critique by Darren Mack, co-director of the Freedom Agenda, a group advocating for the depopulation of Rikers Island. Mack criticized Mayor Adams for maintaining policies that, in his view, condemn individuals to unsafe conditions.

“Is three deaths in one month still not enough to make him stop?” Mack asked, referring to Mayor Adams.

Johnstone’s death came amidst increasing tensions between DOC and its federal monitor, Steve Martin, who has reported a “disturbing level of regression” under the Adams administration and has recommended that the city be held in contempt of court. This could pave the way for a potential federal takeover of the island’s jails — a move the Adams administration has indicated it would staunchly oppose.

The defender services called for immediate action to prevent further tragedies. “Before another life is lost, every judge, every prosecutor, every elected official must take decisive action to reduce the jail population on Rikers Island,” they stated.


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