NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — An inmate was found dead in a cell with soaring temperatures at Rikers Island last month, and critics said he was “baked to death.”
As CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez reported Wednesday, Jerome Murdough, 56, was a homeless former U.S. Marine and was mentally ill. He was arrested last month for trespassing at a public housing development while looking for a warm place to sleep.
He was being held at Rikers Island on $2,500 bail.
On the night of Valentine’s Day – one week after his arrest – Murdough was found dead in a jail cell that had overheated to at least 100 degrees due to faulty heating equipment.
His mother, Alma Murdough, 75, was devastated as she talked about it.
“I know I’m going to never see him again – never talk to him or nothing,” she said. “That’s really heartbreaking.”
Alma Murdough said her son wasn’t perfect, but he did not deserve to die alone in a steaming jail cell.
“He suffered. He really suffered, and I think the (correction officers) in there didn’t care. They went on and they had doughnuts and coffee. And they just didn’t care,” she said.
Jerome Murdough’s sister, Cheryl Warner, said her brother’s death was particularly tragic given that he had served his country as a Marine.
“This is supposed to be the land of opportunity; home of the brave and free,” Warner said. “And my brother served in the military, and for that to happen to him is a disgrace.”
According to the city officials, Jerome Murdough was locked alone into his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 14, a week after his arrest. Because he was in the mental-observation unit, he was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes as part of suicide watch, they said. But he was not discovered until four hours later, at about 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead.
“They just put him in there and went about their business, you know? I don’t understand that part,” Alma Murdough said, “and come back four hours later? That’s terrible — like he’s not a human being?”
Officials told The Associated Press that Jerome Murdough was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which may have made him more vulnerable to heat. He also apparently did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air.
“He basically baked to death,” said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss specifics of the case.
The New York City Medical Examiner’s office said an autopsy was inconclusive and that more tests were needed to determine Murdough’s exact cause of death. But the officials, all with detailed knowledge of the case, say initial indications from the autopsy and investigation point to extreme dehydration or heat stroke.
“It’s pretty absurd on its face that an individual can die from excessive heat in a jail where people are supposed to be under post surveillance, I mean people don’t die in a matter of minutes from excessive heat, it takes a while,” John Boston, director of Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, told 1010 WINS.
Dr. Susi Vassallo, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine and a national expert on heat-related deaths who monitors heat conditions at Rikers Island, said psychotropic medications can impair the body’s ability to cool itself by sweating, making it retain more heat than it should.
Exposure to intense heat for a couple of hours by someone on such medications could be fatal, she said.
“My understanding is that the heating system was malfunctioning and it may have been a weekend and there were no maintenance people available,” Boston said. “If this is true, that the problem was that the heat system was malfunctioning and there was nobody around who could fix it immediately, the question still remains why didn’t they get this man who was vulnerable to excessive heat out of that excessively hot place.”
Department of Correction spokesman Robin Campbell said in a statement that an internal investigation will look into all “the circumstances surrounding Murdough’s unfortunate death, including issues of staff performance and the adequacy of procedures.”
Campbell acknowledged that the temperature in Murdough’s cell was “unusually high” and that action has been taken to fix mechanical problems to ensure safe temperatures, “particularly in areas housing vulnerable inmates.”
Alma Murdough said she did not learn of her son’s death until the Associated Press contacted her last week, nearly a month after he died. His public defender was told of the death three days after the inmate was found, the DOC said.
She also said the DOC still has not reached out to her.
“They need to clean up their act,” she said. “They need to get themselves together, because this is real crazy.”
Wanda Mehala, another of Murdough’s sisters, said the family also wants an explanation.
“We want justice for what was done,” she said. “He wasn’t just some old homeless person on the street. He was loved. He had a life. He had a family. He had feelings.”
Alma Murdough said her son her son had bipolar disorder with schizophrenic episodes, and that she had not seen him in about three years.
“He had beer problems. Drinking beer. That was his downfall. Other than that, he was a very nice guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”
Family members say Murdough grew up in Queens and joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, doing at least one stint in Okinawa, Japan.
When he returned from the service, his family said, both his mental illness and thirst for alcohol became more pronounced, and he would often disappear for months at a time, finding warmth in hospitals, shelters and the streets.
“When he wanted to venture off, we let him, we allowed him to come and go,” Warner said. “He always came back.”
Murdough’s criminal record included 11 misdemeanor convictions for trespassing, drinking in public and minor drug charges, said Ivan Vogel, a public defender who represented him at his arraignment on the trespassing charge.
Catherine Abate, a member of the New York City Board of Correction, an agency charged with overseeing the city’s jails, suggested at a recent public meeting that Murdough should have been referred to psychiatric care when he was arrested last month, not to Rikers Island.
Jennifer J. Parish, an attorney at the New York-based Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, said Murdough appeared to be a man in need of care.
“So Mr. Murdough violated the trespass law. So he suffered the consequences by going to jail,” Parish said. “But the jail system committed more serious harm to him. And the question is, ‘Will they ever be held responsible?”’
Alma Murdough said authorities made a mistake in putting her son in jail, 1010 WINS’ Al Jones reported.
“Why aren’t you going to put him in a shelter somewhere or another? Why send him someplace where they don’t care about the people. A lot of stuff happens over there,” she said.
Last year, only three Rikers inmates died from non-natural causes, according to Department of Correction statistics.
Of the 12,000 inmates who make up the nation’s second-largest jail system, about 40 percent are mentally ill, and a third of them suffer from serious mental problems the department said. Advocates and others have long argued that correction officers are not sufficiently trained to deal with mentally ill inmates whose needs are complex.
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