An inmate at Rikers Island died after his jail cell overheated causing him to be “baked to death.” City officials claim that the 100 degree temperature in the jail cell was due to malfunctioning equipment.
Jerome Murdough had been arrested for trespassing after he curled up in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing project to try and get warm. A week later, Murdough who was a mentally ill homeless marine was found dead in his jail cell on Rikers Island.
City officials reported that Murdough was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication which made him more susceptible to the heat. Other inmates had managed to open a small vent in their cells to let cool air in that Murdough hadn’t done.
One of the officials stated, “He basically baked to death.” The medical examiner’s office stated that the autopsy was “inconclusive” and would require additional testing to determine an exact cause of death. Early speculation indicates that Murdough could have died from extreme dehydration or heat stroke.
Department of Correction spokesman, Robin Campbell released a statement revealing that an internal investigation would be done “including issues of staff performance and the adequacy of procedures.” Campbell went on to acknowledge that the temperature in Murdough’s cell was “unusually high.”
Action has been taken to repair the malfunctioning equipment “particularly in areas housing vulnerable inmates”, according to Campbell.
Alma Murdough, mother of Jerome Murdough spoke with the AP and alleges that no one contacted her to tell her that her son had died. According to Alma Murdough, it was the AP who told her that her son had died approximately a month after his death.
The DOC claims that Murdough’s public defender was notified three days after his tragic death. Alma Murdough told the AP, “He [Jerome] was a very lovely, caring guy” and that he suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Alma went on to add, “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.” Cheryl Warner, Murdough’s sister said, “When we wanted to venture off, we let him, we allowed him to come and go. He always came back.”
According to a Murdough public defender, Ivan Vogel, Murdough’s criminal record listed 11 misdemeanor convictions for trespassing, drinking in public and minor drug charges.
City officials reported that Murdough was locked into his 6 by 10 cinderblock cell at 10:30 pm. Due to the fact that he was in the mental observation unit, Murdough was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes as a part of a suicide watch.
However, Murdough was not discovered until 2:30 am, over four hours later. He was slumped over in his bed and he had already died.
Once Murdough’s dead body was found his internal temperature as well as the temperature inside his cell were over 100 degrees. Officials stated that because the cell had been closed up for several hours it was possible for the inside to have been much higher.
Dr. Susi Vassallo, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine and one who monitors heat conditions at Rikers Island, stated that psychotropic medications can impair the body’s ability to cool itself by sweating, making it retain more heat than it should.
Vassallo went on to add that “exposure to intense heat for a couple of hours by someone on such medications could be fatal.”
In 2013, according to the statistics provided by the Department of Correction, three inmates at Rikers Island died from non-natural causes. Also of the 12,000 inmates incarcerated at Rikers which is the nation’s second largest jail system, approximately 40 percent are mentally ill. Of the 40 percent, one third of them suffer from serious mental problems.
New York City Board of Correction member, Catherine Abate stated in a public meeting that “Murdough should have been referred to psychiatric care, not to Rikers Island.” New York based Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project attorney Jennifer J. Parish stated that Murdough was a “man in need of care.”
Parish went on to say, “So Mr. Murdough violated the trespass law. So he suffered the consequences by going to jail. But the jail system committed more serious harm to him. And the question is, ‘Will they ever be held responsible.’”
One of Murdough’s sisters, Wanda Mehala said that the family was demanding an explanation. “We want justice for what was done. 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.”
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