A news report has raised questions about how New York City jail officials handle at-risk inmates after a troubled 56-year-old former Marine was found dead in a Rikers Island cell where the temperature at one point had reportedly exceeded 100 degrees.
“He basically baked to death,” one official with knowledge of Jerome Murdough’s death told the Associated Press.
The wire service reported that Murdough was mentally ill, homeless and had been arrested for trespassing after trying to curl up and sleep in an enclosed stairwell on a chilly winter night.
Murdough was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes but was instead discovered four hours after being locked in his cell on Feb. 14, the AP reported. His 75-year-old mother didn’t learn of his death until a month later — when an AP reporter contacted her last week about the case.
On Wednesday, in a brief phone interview, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Correction told a Los Angeles Times reporter to send an email with questions about Murdough’s case.
The spokesman did not immediately respond to the ensuing messages, which asked if jail officials disputed any of the facts in the AP’s report or had any reaction to the wire service’s findings.
[Update, 2:23 p.m.: A department of corrections spokesman sent The Times a statement from Acting Commissioner Mark Cranston that was briefly quoted and referenced in the AP’s report. The full statement is below:
“The safety of inmates and staff is our top priority, and the death of an inmate under our supervision is never acceptable. The department is conducting a full investigation of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Murdough’s unfortunate death, including issues of staff performance and the adequacy of procedures. While we cannot comment on the facts surrounding his death while the investigation is underway, preliminary information suggests there were unusually high temperatures in Mr. Murdough’s cell. The department accordingly has taken remedial action to correct any mechanical problems in the immediate facility and to ensure that safe temperatures are maintained throughout the entire jail system, particularly in areas housing vulnerable inmates.”
The department also said that “several other” cells surrounding Murdough’s were found to be warmer than 80 degrees, and officials said they had taken steps to fix overheating issues, including turning down thermostats.]
Corrections officials previously told the AP in a statement that the incident was under investigation but acknowledged that the temperature in Murdough’s 6-by-10-foot cinderblock cell was “unusually high” and said they were trying to make mechanical fixes to ensure safe temperatures.
Murdough had a small vent in his cell that he did not open. The inmate had been prescribed antipsychotic and antiseizure medication that may have made him more susceptible to heat, officials told the AP. The medical examiner’s office called the cause of death inconclusive pending more tests, though officials said he had signs of extreme dehydration or heatstroke.
Rikers Island has been the subject of heightened scrutiny over the past few months amid reports of a surge in violence and disorder at the large prison complex. At least 12 inmates have been slashed or stabbed since New Year’s Eve, the New York Times reported after reviewing confidential jail documents.