On the morning of July 28, Ayesha Johnson sat quietly in a Dorchester courtroom as her stepfather urged a judge to force her into treatment for alcohol addiction. Her family believed it was the only way to get her the help she desperately needed to stop drinking, he said.
“To see the road she’s going down, I had no choice but to do what I’m doing today,” Joseph L. Watkins Jr. told the judge, according to a recording of the hearing. “I understand she’s very angry with me right now. ... I’m just trying to save her life.”
Boston Municipal Court Judge Thomas Kaplanes agreed that Johnson, a 35-year-old mother of two, was at risk of harming herself because of her addiction. He ordered her to be taken into custody and sent to a New Bedford treatment program, a process known as involuntary civil commitment. Johnson was escorted from the courtroom just before noon, according to the recording.
Hours later, she was dead.
The sheriff’s department picked her up from the courthouse at 2 p.m., according to a spokeswoman for the court. She was taken to the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay, where she died alone in a “holding area” while waiting to be taken to New Bedford, according to the Suffolk Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. She was found unresponsive at 4:35 p.m. Efforts to revive her were unsuccessful.
Forty minutes later, another inmate at the jail died alone in a medical unit, officials said. Edward Isberg Jr., 42, of Wilmington, was found unresponsive at 5:15 pm. and could not be resuscitated, the sheriff’s department said. He had been arrested the previous day for allegedly stealing tools from a construction site and was being held on $200 cash bail, according to court records.
The deaths came a little more than two weeks after another Suffolk inmate, 31-year-old Rashonn Wilson, “fell ill and was taken to the hospital where he later passed under doctors’ care,” according to the sheriff’s department. He had been in custody since March on a firearms charge, and was being held on $15,000 cash bail when he died on July 12, according to court records.
The three deaths have sparked protests outside the jail and stunned relatives, who said they have received very little information about how their loved ones died. Authorities told them there were no signs of trauma, relatives said, and they were waiting for toxicology results.
In a statement released shortly after Johnson and Isberg died, Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins said that “at this time the two deaths are not believed to be related in any way, and foul play is not suspected in either case.”
The Boston Police Department and the Suffolk district attorney’s office are investigating the deaths, according to spokesmen, who declined to comment further.
For Johnson’s relatives, their grief is deepened by feelings of anger and frustration that their efforts to get her help ended with her death. Her father, Reginald White, said she had stopped by his Dorchester home that morning, reluctant to go to court. But after they spoke, she agreed that she would.
“We figured this is the only way we can get our baby back,” White said in an interview from his home, where he scrolled through pictures of her on his phone. “I convinced her to go, not knowing that I would never see my baby again. It hurts me.”
Johnson’s family is demanding to know why she was taken to the jail when she had not been charged with a crime and was in dire need of treatment while going through alcohol withdrawal.
“She was a beautiful mother, a beautiful person,” said Johnson’s brother, Antwonn Johnson, who has held her photo during recent rallies outside the jail, joined by community activists who are demanding accountability from the sheriff’s department. “We want answers and justice. We don’t know what happened.”
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said the deaths raise concerns about whether people being held at the jail are receiving the necessary medical care and treatment.
“Three deaths in a very short time span in one jail is a real problem, a major red flag,” she said.
Since 2017, 13 people have died in the custody of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, seven at South Bay and six at the Nashua Street jail, officials said.
Isberg’s mother, Susan Isberg, said her son, known as Jay, had underlying health conditions and had been taking methadone while trying to overcome opioid addiction. No one has told her why he was placed in a medical unit and she hoped authorities tried everything they should have to save him.
“I’m glad that they are doing an investigation because I want to know what happened,” Isberg said. “Their lives mattered.”
Jay Isberg, a star athlete who played hockey at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers and St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, where he studied environmental biology, became addicted to heroin in his 20s, his mother said. He fought hard to overcome his substance abuse, had been drug-free for much of the past few years, and recently completed a treatment program in Norton. But he relapsed shortly before his death and was staying at a homeless shelter in Boston and getting methadone treatment, according to court records.
During a recent phone call, he told his mother how a man beside him had overdosed on heroin and was angry when Isberg used Narcan to save him. He said he was determined to save the man because he knew he was a father and thought about how his children would feel if they lost him.
“Jay wasn’t defined by his struggle with addiction,” his mother said. “He never lost his compassionate nature, and fiercely battled to maintain his sobriety.” She said his family was proud of him and is devastated by his loss.
Isberg was arrested the day before he died after firefighters rendered aid to him under a bridge and alerted police that he had tools that had allegedly been stolen from a construction site in South Boston, court records show. He spent the night at the Nashua Street jail, then was transferred to South Bay the next day, according to the sheriff’s department.
In Dorchester, White said his daughter was a devoted mother who loved to cook and buy gifts for her relatives. She worked as a bank manager and an administrative secretary. But she lost her job during the pandemic, and her life was in a downward spiral as she struggled with alcohol addiction.
Johnson had voluntarily checked into treatment several times, but usually left after a few days and resumed drinking, White said. This time, the family sought court intervention to force her to complete a program. Under state law, judges may civilly commit a person suffering from alcohol or substance abuse to treatment for up to 90 days if they are deemed likely to harm themselves or others because of their addiction.
During Johnson’s hearing, a doctor said she had interviewed Johnson, her father, and stepfather and found she was suffering from excessive drinking, depression, and underlying health conditions. Johnson had recently passed out twice due to low potassium and electrolytes and had been hospitalized for a couple of days, the doctor said. She recommended Johnson be committed.
Johnson’s lawyer opposed her commitment, saying she had no criminal record and was scheduled to begin a new job. But the judge sided with the family.
Advocates have long opposed sending people in need of drug treatment to jail, and in 2014 Prisoners’ Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sued the state over its longstanding practice of sending women to the state prison in Framingham after they were civilly committed for alcohol or substance abuse treatment. They argued that women were being treated as criminals and denied proper care, as they were confined to cells. At the time, men who were civilly committed were sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for treatment.
That suit was dismissed two years later, when a new state law was enacted requiring that women who were not facing criminal charges and had been civilly committed be sent to a treatment facility approved by the Department of Public Health or the Department of Mental Health.
State Representative Ruth Balser, who has proposed legislation that would change treatment options for men, said Johnson’s placement at the jail, even temporarily, appeared to mark a breach in protocol.
“What was she doing in the jail?” Balser asked. “The important point is that addiction is an illness. It’s not a crime. If someone is so sick that they need to be committed for help, they should go to a hospital and not a jail.”
Peter Van Delft, a spokesman for the Suffolk Sheriff’s Department, said Johnson “was lawfully in our custody pending transportation to the treatment center that the courts had assigned her to.” She was to be transferred later that day, he said.
He declined to comment further, or say whether women are routinely held at the jail before being transferred to a treatment program, citing the ongoing investigation.
But Jessie Rossman, a lawyer who represented the ACLU in the suit brought against the state, said people who are civilly committed for medical treatment should not go to jail for any length of time because the first few hours of detoxification are potentially dangerous.
“If a judge has determined that someone is at such a risk of harm to themselves as a result of their substance or alcohol use disorder that they trigger a civil commitment, that is exactly the time when it is most important for them to be at a facility where they can begin the medical treatment they have been ordered to receive by the court,” Rossman said.
Johnson’s aunt, Angela Ramos, said the family believed she would go directly to a treatment program or hospital and wants to know whether the sheriff’s department violated protocol by taking her to the jail. The family may have handled things differently if they had known that would happen, she said.
“If it’s protocol, and I don’t think it should be, I’m as mad as hell and it does need to be changed,” Ramos said. “Remember, she’s not a criminal. She didn’t break the law. So don’t treat her like a criminal.”
Globe correspondent Kate Lusignan contributed to this report.