Rikers Island

24-Year-Old Man Found Dead in Cell at NYC's Rikers Island as Staffing Crisis Continues

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Amid reports of staffing issues at Rikers Island, a 24-year-old man has become at least the ninth inmate to die at the correctional facility this year.

Authorities are investigating the death of Esias Johnson who was found unresponsive in his cell at the Anna M. Kross Center on Tuesday and pronounced dead at 9:45 a.m., the New York City Department of Correction said.

According to DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, Johnson had recently entered custody on Aug. 7 and he was being held on a fugitive arrest warrant and charged with menacing.

“The circumstances surrounding this death will receive a full investigation. We have been in touch with Esias Johnson’s next of kin, and extend our deepest condolences,” said Schiraldi.

Just last month, 25-year-old Brandon Rodriguez was also found dead in his cell at Rikers Island. He was arrested Aug. 4 on Staten Island. The Staten Island Advance reports that he was arrested following a domestic incident.

The family of Layleen Polanco is settling with the city over her death at a Rikers Island jail cell.

The Legal Aid Society issued a statement regarding Johnson’s death, which read in part: "He was a beloved son and brother. We mourn alongside his family, and we join their call for answers."

"The Department of Correction continues to demonstrate that it cannot house people safely. Mr. Johnson is at least the third person to die on Rikers in the last 30 days. Reducing the jail population is the only way to avoid further deaths and swift action is desperately needed," the statement continued."

Tiffany Cabán, the Democratic Nominee for NYC Council District 22, on Tuesday called for Mayor Bill de Blasio to grant work release to people serving sentences in city jails in order to save lives.

"Doctors on Rikers Island, public defenders, families of those who died, formerly and currently incarcerated, elected officials, candidates – we are all raising the alarm, waving red flags, practically begging those with authority to hear us: simply being in custody is a potential death sentence," Cabán said in a statement.

Just a week after a man was mistakenly released from Rikers Island due to clerical error, it happened again.

At a news conference Tuesday, Schiraldi says the DOC has been plagued with many problems since the start of March 2020, from COVID-19 to assaults on staff. So far, 13 employees have died from the respiratory disease, he said.

"Any death of staff and any death of someone in custody is a tragedy and we take these types of events very seriously," Schiraldi told reporters.

"These tragic events have been taking place within the much larger context of our staffing shortages," he added. "We cannot improve safety until we're fully staffed. When staff don't show up to work, every aspect of our operation suffer. So do the employees who pick up the slack and the people in custody."

Schiraldi said that he plans to hire 200 more officers in addition to the previous 400 to improve conditions.

The city is promising to hire hundreds of new correction officers after the I-Team's Sarah Wallace reported on current officers regularly being required to work triple shifts, often 24 hours straight with few to no breaks and little to no access to food or drinks.

NBC New York has previously reported on those staff shortages. Officers on Rikers Island have lodged complaints for months after being made to work triple tours — 24 straight hours without a break — with no access to food or water.

In a scathing response to Schiraldi's statements, president of Correction Officers' Benevolent Association Benny Boscio Jr. says the DOC head is demonizing officers while inmate assaults on officers continue.

“The reality is that triple shifts are happening because in just one year, the inmate population has nearly doubled and Mayor de Blasio has refused to hire a single Correction Officer for nearly three years," Boscio said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio has denied a report by the New York Post about plans to release Rikers inmates early. The Democrat said on Tuesday, "I don't know who was looking at plans. They were not presented here. They were not approved. It just isn't true."

Officers on Rikers Island are lodging complaints after being made to work triple tours — 24 straight hours without a break — with no access to food or water. NBC New York's Sarah Wallace reports.
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