Former Rikers Island inmates and their supporters rallied against the latest death in the penal facility on Tuesday as the feds look to wrest control of the city jail away from the Adams administration.
The mayor’s control of Rikers Island appears to be in jeopardy after the death of 47-year-old William Johnstone, who was found unresponsive in his cell Saturday and was later pronounced dead — adding to the outrage over the condition of the facility. The exact cause of Johnson’s death has yet to be revealed.
Advocates, family members, and former inmates went as far as to call the jail a death camp during a protest that took place on Foley Square in Lower Manhattan on July 18. Organized by the Jails Action Coalition, demonstrators stood in the pouring rain and held up the names of those who have lost their lives behind bars.
Attendees also demanded that the swelling inmate population be decarcerated. According to the city Comptroller’s office, on July 1, DOC jails held 6,081 people, 77 more people than on June 1.
“Brooklyn defender services is heartbroken over the death of William Johnstone, a 47-year-old-man, a human being who we have represented since March of this year. We are now at a crucial point where our demands for accountability have gone unanswered for too long,” Yung-Mi Lee, Johnstone’s attorney. “As defenders we have seen the devastation and harm caused by incarceration on Rikers Island.”
Johnstone’s death came days before U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York declared that he is seeking a court appointed receiver to take control of the troubled island, which he charged “has been in crisis for years.”
“Over several mayors’ administrations and leaders of the corrections system and he favors a court-appointed outside authority to take charge of the complex. But after eight years of trying every tool in the toolkit, we cannot wait any longer for substantial progress to materialize,” Williams said in a statement, adding that his office would seek to have a court-appointed receivership put in place.
Adams and DOC Commissioner Louis Molina have been on the defense in recent months as they attempt to mitigate the negative impact of the 25 people who have lost their lives in city jails since he took office last year. Hizzoner took shots at naysayers on July 17.
“I think about Molina, the first Hispanic to run the Department of Correction; and in spite of what people are attempting to say, he’s doing a goddamn good job,” Adams said during a Bronx press conference announcing the appointment of Edward Caban as the 46th police commissioner.
Twenty-four hours later, Adams maintained that his administration, not the federal government, remained the best hope for a turnaround at Rikers.
“I respect the US Attorney in the Southern District. I think he’s a great leader there. But something is just not adding up that I went from Eric turning the corner to now we need to place a receivership.” Adams said. “I believe that I’m the best person to make the Rikers that we all desire.”
Molina himself told amNewYork Metro in person last week that he feels he has made positive strides since his predecessor, who he insisted had been incompetent.
“The last 20 months, when you think about where the department was in January 2022, when it had a state of collapse. And we’ve brought a lot of resources, and those resources have yielded a lot of good things. We’ve seen calendar year to date this year. Slashing and stabbings are down 36%. Our assaults on staff are down by double digits,” Molina said.