William Johnstone becomes sixth Rikers Island detainee to die this year

A jail on Rikers Island.
A jail on Rikers Island.
File photo by Dean Moses

William Johnstone died Saturday while being held on Rikers Island, becoming the sixth person to die this year in the custody of the city’s Department of Correction (DOC).

Johnstone, 47, was found unresponsive in his cell at the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island at 1:50 p.m. Saturday afternoon, according to a DOC spokesperson. He was transported to Mount Sinai Queens Hospital in Astoria, where he was pronounced deceased at 3:50 p.m.

The cause of his death remains unclear, and will be determined by the city’s Medical Examiner. Johnstone’s death was first reported by the Daily News Saturday evening.

No next of kin had been notified as of Sunday morning, according to DOC. The spokesperson said the Department has, however, notified the Rikers federal monitor, state Attorney General, and other agencies.

Johnstone was arrested in March on robbery charges in Brooklyn and parole violations in Manhattan, and was being held on $39,998 bail or $149,998 bond, according to DOC records. His next court date was scheduled for August.

He was previously incarcerated for five years at Downstate Correctional Facility for sale of a controlled substance, and was paroled in 2021.

Johnstone is the third person to die in city custody just this month. Felix Taveras died of an overdose on July 4 at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island, in an incident that led to the suspension of four correction officers for failing to save his life. Taveras, 40, was being held on a parole violation.

Two days later, Ricky Howell died at the Bellevue Hospital jail ward from cancer. The 60-year-old was being held on burglary charges.

“Why is Mayor Adams continuing his crusade to condemn more and more people to a place that either can’t or won’t keep them alive,” said Darren Mack, co-director of the Freedom Agenda, a group calling to depopulate Rikers Island. “Is three deaths in one month still not enough to make him stop?”

The Rikers Island jail complex.
The Rikers Island jail complex.AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File

Johnstone is the 25th person to die in city custody since Eric Adams became mayor and Louis Molina became DOC Commissioner last year. The 19 in-custody deaths in 2022 were the most recorded in New York City jails since the 1990s.

Johnstone’s attorneys at Brooklyn Defender Services and New York County Defender Services said he had been unable to afford his bail.

“It is abhorrent that twenty-five New Yorkers have lost their lives in DOC custody since the beginning of 2022,” the groups said in a joint statement. “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 relationship between DOC and the federal monitor overseeing the city’s jails is currently at a nadir, with the monitor recommending that the city be held in contempt of court. That could potentially set the stage for a federal takeover of the island’s jails, a move the Adams administration has indicated it would vigorously fight.

The monitor, Steve Martin, says the relationship between DOC and the feds has seen a “disturbing level of regression” under the Adams administration. DOC has stopped notifying the public of all in-custody deaths, and the monitor says both major operational moves are being made and disturbing incidents are occurring without his office being notified.

In one incident, 31-year-old Joshua Valles was reported to have died from a heart attack, but was later discovered to have suffered a skull fracture that DOC hadn’t reported to the monitor.

In another incident, a man named James Carlton was paralyzed from the neck down after being tackled while in cuffs, falling to the ground and hitting his head hard. The monitor said his team wasn’t notified for nearly two weeks; DOC claimed the injuries were the result of a pre-existing condition of spinal stenosis, though the monitor questioned the veracity of the claim.