NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – New York City’s acting head of the Department of Correction faced tough questions from the City Council Thursday over the death of an inmate at Rikers Island.
Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Mark Cranston told a City Council committee that a malfunctioning damper diverted heat to the upper-level cell where a mentally ill veteran was found dead last month.
He also noted that a gauge on the lower-level tier didn’t register the high temperature on the upper level. Homeless former Marine James Murdough’s cell had overheated to at least 100 degrees.
“The fact is there was an unusually high temperature in that cell,” said Cranston.
City officials told the AP last week that Murdough did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air.
“Any death in our custody is a tragedy. It’s something we all work collectively for every day to not happen,” said Cranston, who also offered his condolences to Murdough’s family.
As WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb reported, Criminal Justice Committee Chair Elizabeth Crowley grilled Cranston about the death of the 56-year-old Murdough.
An official told The Associated Press Murdough “basically baked to death” in a mental observation unit on Rikers Island.
Crowley: “Was Mr. Murdough on suicide watch?”
Cranston: “No, he was on psychotropic medications and he was in his cell. He wasn’t on watch.”
Crowley: “Was he supposed to be visited every 15 minutes?”
Cranston: “Yes, I think every half hour.”
Crowley: “And he was in that cell for a number of hours before he was found dead.”
Crowley: “Do you know how many hours?”
Cranston: “No more than 4.”
Cranston also said fan belts on the unit’s roof were faulty.
Cranston said a correction officer who was supposed to have checked on Murdough every 30 minutes but failed to do so was suspended for 20 days.
The guard is now back on duty at Rikers. Though, officials say, in a post that does not require inmate contact, CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer reported.
“That correction officer’s on modified duty as we speak,” Cranston said.
Murdough was arrested in February at a housing project while looking for a warm place to sleep and was being held at Rikers on $2,500 bail.
Lawmakers questioned Cranston on Murdough’s death, the rising violence levels in city jails and the system’s increasingly mentally ill inmate population.
About 40 percent of New York City’s roughly 12,000 inmates are mentally ill. That’s up drastically from 2007, when 24 percent of inmates were mentally ill, according to the DOC.
Murdough’s family said the 56-year-old suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Mayor Bill de Blasio last week tapped Joseph Ponte to take over the DOC.
The Bronx District Attorney is investigating the case for possible criminal charges and there is also an internal department investigation.
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