Gay Man Dies at Rikers While Held Under $1 Bail; Family Seeks Answers

·3 min read
Esias Johnson poses for the camera
Esias Johnson poses for the camera

The family of 24-year-old Esias “Izzy” Johnson is seeking answers after the gay man died at New York’s Rickers Island prison September 7.

Johnson’s family says jail officials ignored his pleas for help. He’d spent a month trying to get out of jail on a $1 bail, according to Gay City News.

Twelve people, including Johnson, have died in New York City jails so far this year.

New York’s chief medical examiner said that determining the cause of Johnson’s death would require more time, the outlet reported. The family requested a toxicology report.

“Inmates came forward saying he had been complaining of stomach pain for days,” Johnson’s mother, Tracy Johnson, told Gay City News. “Inmates said he had been screaming all night for help, and come morning time, he couldn’t get out of bed. He never got out of bed for breakfast.”

The New York Daily News reported the death could have been due to an overdose — something Johnson’s family disputes.

“I think they put a drug overdose to cover up that they weren’t taking care of him or helping him,” Tracy Johnson said. She said her son had Asperger’s syndrome and had social anxiety.

He had been awaiting court dates for several misdemeanor charges. A lawyer for the family, Jamie Santana, said inmates heard Johnson screaming in pain and that his calls for help were known to Rikers Island officials.

“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.”

Johnson’s family said he should have never been at Rikers.

Tracy Johnson told the Daily News earlier this month, “We tried paying the bail online, but they said we couldn’t. … He had commissary money and could have paid, but they said he still needed to be seen by a judge. But they weren’t bringing him to court.”

“He said he had problems with his court dates,” she told Gay City News recently. “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 New York City Department of Correction told the outlet, “The circumstances surrounding this death will receive a full investigation.”

“He was supposed to be home this week sometime,” Tracy Johnson said. “It’s a bit hard right now because we didn’t get to see him for his birthday. He was excited to be home so he could celebrate — and as a mom, it hurts more because he could have been helped.”

Johnson, from Massachusetts, moved to New York after meeting a man online. Once he moved there, his family says, he had some negative situations and periods.

“We are going to try our very best to pursue the highest level of accountability,” Santana said. “Unfortunately, no amount of justice will bring back Esias.”

Gay City News noted that Johnson’s death comes two years after the death of Layleen Polanco, a Black trans woman held at Rikers who died after suffering a medical emergency. Her family received a settlement of $5.9 after an investigation revealed she was neglected by jail officials.

“Rikers is a death trap,” Beverly Tillery, the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, said in a press release.

“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,” Tillery added. “Esias Johnson and Layleen Polanco should have been released on bail, but instead [they] were left to languish at Rikers for weeks with no end in sight.”

Johnson's family has set up a Facebook fundraiser to help with burial costs.

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