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Documents: Officials Knew About Rikers Heat Problem Before Inmate’s Death

Jerome Murdough

Seen here in his U.S. Marine uniform as a younger man, Jerome Murdough, 56, was found dead in his jail cell at Rikers Island in February 2014. (Credit: CBS 2)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Court documents have revealed that officials at Rikers Island were aware of excessive heat problems inside the facility before a mentally ill inmate was found dead in an overheated cell.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that e-mails requesting repairs due to “too much heat” in a cell were sent on Friday, Feb. 14. But they weren’t received until Feb. 18, the following Tuesday, because the maintenance department doesn’t receive requests during weekends, according to a Feb. 27 email sent by a court-appointed monitor and filed last month in an ongoing federal lawsuit by The Legal Aid Society.

In addition, that Monday was Presidents Day, a federal holiday.

The e-mail by the deputy director of the Office of Compliance Consultants, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Manhattan in a case concerning heating conditions in the Rikers Island jail complex, also revealed previously unknown details regarding the death of 56-year-old former Marine Jerome Murdough.

Murdough, who was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, was found dead in the early hours of Feb. 15 in a cell that had overheated, apparently by malfunctioning equipment, city officials told the AP. He also did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air, they said.

The AP first reported in March on suspicions about the inmate’s cause of death. One official who spoke at the time on the condition of anonymity described him as having “basically baked to death.” The mayor has called his death “very troubling,” and it prompted Department of Correction officials to suspend a correction officer, reassign a warden and transfer a mechanics supervisor.

Among those details, the email, citing an internal Department of Correction investigation, disclosed that Murdough’s internal body temperature, taken nearly four hours after he was discovered unresponsive and slumped at the edge of the foot of his bed with “a pool of vomit and blood on the floor,” was 103 degrees. It said the cell was 101 degrees.

“To learn that Jerome Murdough died as a result of the city’s failure to remove him from a dangerous environment shows how senseless and avoidable his death was,” said family attorney Derek Sells, noting the family was preparing a lawsuit against the city. “Alma Murdough, Jerome’s mother, is beside herself at this news of how the city failed her son and wants to hold those responsible for his death accountable.”

A department spokesman didn’t immediately return a request for comment. Prosecutors are investigating.

According to the city officials, Murdough was locked alone into his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10:30 p.m. 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 Murdough 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.

How exactly Murdough died hasn’t yet been determined, and a spokeswoman for the medical examiner hasn’t returned a message. But the email, citing a Department of Correction preliminary finding issued the day after Murdough’s death, said he likely died of hyperthermia.

Though he had a history of seizures, the medical examiner investigator assigned to Murdough’s case “believes that the heat in his cell caused his body to shut down,” according to the email.

A correction doctor also found that Murdough, whose family said he suffered from mental illness and alcohol abuse over the years, had a “schizoaffective disorder and depression” and was on psychotropic medication, according to the email. Experts say that people on psychotropic medication can be more sensitive to heat.

A correction officer who screened him at intake on Feb. 8 found that he felt “hopeless” appeared “depressed” was “suicidal” and thus was in need of “constant supervision,” according to the email.

Carol Lackner, the correction officer assigned to patrol the mental observation unit where Murdough was housed, checking the inmate every half hour, abandoned her post around 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15, according to the email. Another correction officer found Murdough at 2:50 a.m. and notified medical staff five minutes later, according to the email. A mental health observation aide whose job is to check inmates every 15 minutes wasn’t assigned to the unit where Murdough was jailed, officials have said.

Murdough, who was locked into his cell around 10:30 p.m. Feb. 14, was left unchecked for no more than four hours, former Commissioner Mark Cranston told lawmakers in March.

Attempts to reach Lackner were unsuccessful. She has been suspended. A spokesman for the correction officers’ union didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Murdough was arrested Feb. 7 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing building and was sent to Rikers Island after being unable to make $2,500 bail, according to court records.

About a dozen family members attended the former Marine Corps field artillery batteryman’s funeral during a modest service last month. He was buried in New Jersey.

Last month, warden Rose Argo, of the Anna M. Kross Center inmate facility at Rikers Island, was demoted and transferred from the 2,100-inmate facility, where Murdough was held. She was to be moved to supervise another facility that does not hold mentally ill inmates, the corrections department said.

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