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NYC inmate 'baked to death' in cell

NEW YORK (AP) - Jerome Murdough was just looking for a warm place to sleep on a chilly night last month when he curled up in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing project where he was arrested for trespassing.

A week later, the mentally ill homeless man was found dead in a Rikers Island jail cell that four city officials say had overheated to at least 100 degrees, apparently because of malfunctioning equipment.

The officials told The Associated Press that the 56-year-old former Marine 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 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.

Advocates for mentally ill inmates in New York say the death represents the failure of the city's justice system on almost every level: by arresting Murdough instead of finding him help, by setting bail at a prohibitive $2,500 and by not supervising him closely in what is supposed to be a special observation unit for inmates with mental illnesses.

Department of Correction spokesman Robin Campbell said in a statement that an internal investigation will look into all circumstances of Murdough's 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."

Murdough's 75-year-old mother, Alma Murdough, said she did not learn of her son's death until the AP 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.

"He was a very lovely, caring guy," said Murdough, adding that her son had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia 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," recalled his sister, Cheryl Warner. "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.

According to the city officials, 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 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.

When Murdough was found and his cell opened, his internal body temperature and the temperature in the cell were at least 100 degrees. Those temperatures could have been higher before he was discovered because the cell had been closed for several hours, the officials said.

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.

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.

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 him to psychiatric care, 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?'"

Wanda Mehala, another of Murdough's sisters, said the family 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."

Join the discussion

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catheylj March 19 2014 at 3:18 PM

May God Bless and Keep Jerome.
May the Murdough family find peace and comfort in that knowledge.
May the Greatest Nation on Earth stop treating so many of the very ones that have served to keep it so in such a disgraceful manner as this.

Flag Reply +5 rate up
ttommytbird March 19 2014 at 3:44 PM

I got an idea! let's all do nothng, read it and weep. How long does this **** need to go on before it's you or someone you love?

Flag Reply +8 rate up
Alice March 19 2014 at 3:46 PM

So many things going on here - - a mentally ill man who is on medication that compromises his body's cooling system is left alone, contrary to procedures; a family who can't keep track of him (NYC is an easy place to get lost and / or hide, especially if a person's mentally ill); a penal system that's already overrun with inmates that need special care (40% of them) and who belong in hospitals not jails; a family that didn't even find out about his death until a press organization (not jail or medical examiner officials) told them. There's so much here that's just plain wrong.

Flag Reply +8 rate up
zygi & paris March 19 2014 at 3:46 PM

I read some of the hateful comments. How dare you talk down to a man who was protecting your sorry butts, while you did nothing.

Flag Reply +9 rate up
BradyBeans March 19 2014 at 8:21 PM

How very terrible. Shame on the jail, and shame on anyone that would try to justify this.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
olengrumpy March 19 2014 at 3:46 PM

Pathetic to allow this to happen. They should put the people who allowed this to happen in an oven for an hour.. God damned jerks

Flag Reply +7 rate up
bearberly March 19 2014 at 8:20 PM

Right up front, this MAN was militay, and as usual, WE DO NOT TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN. Fight for your country, come home and fight for your life. Mama Alma, I'm so sorry for your loss, and thank you for having a brave son that was willing to fight for his country, even if his country didn't fight for him.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
flysalot2 March 19 2014 at 3:52 PM

Poor guy. RIP Marine.

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BELMO March 19 2014 at 8:12 PM

We will soon be seeing tens of thousands of men and women who would like to continue serving in our military being “forced out” of active duty. If the Veterans’ Administration continues to handle things in their “business as usual manner” things such as this will be the rule not the exception. Veterans pride themselves on taking care of our own during and after active duty service. From what I have seen the various Veterans Service Organizations like the Marine Corps League have been working their butts off the last few years and, its’ been very demanding given the administrative challenges from the VA. In my area of the US this has been a huge problem (Regional Office Oakland CA.). Good news is according to the veterans I hear from the VA Medical Centers and clinics seem to be doing very well. However, the regional offices just plain sucks when it comes to addressing service connected disabilities. It seems like the VA intentionally frustrates veterans so that they give up. For example, they drag things out in hope that the veteran will “walk away” or die prior to ever receiving a rating for a service connected disability. When men and women serve our nation they all give some and unfortunately some give all but, we vets know that’s the way it is and speaking for many we believe the American people are worth the gamble. What we expect in return is to not to have roadblocks put in our way especially by dragging things out by using BS issues such as but not limited to ignoring the medical opinions and findings of other non-partisan physicians and medical professionals who are not employed by the VA. Sad but, as a Vietnam Era Veteran I have seen such a thing happen many times. Anyone on active duty who reads this I have one bit of advice for you, get your injuries documented, and upon discharge get a copy of your service and medical record. Do not suck it up so that others who you believe need help can get it. It just does not work that way, they too are often getting screwed by the paper pushers in the VA. We give billions of dollars to foreign nations and we have good men such as this Marine living on the streets and that is nothing new. Where is the money to help those who have served? What is going to happen to the tens of thousands of men and women being pushed out of military service when they need help? Can they rely on the VA? When it comes to disability claims and ratings those of us who served during Vietnam have found out that we cannot count on the government, and unfortunately our younger brothers and sisters will probably have the same experience. Rest in Peace my brother. As Marines we will forever be: Saepe Expertus, Semper Fidelis, Fratres Aeterini (Often Tested. Always Faithful, Brothers Forever)

Flag Reply +4 rate up
3 replies
pookypisces March 19 2014 at 3:55 PM

Why wasn't he put in a hospital in the first place..Jail was not the answer for him to get medical help....This is horrible.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
1 reply
Karen pookypisces March 19 2014 at 4:13 PM

Why didn't his own family help him?

Flag Reply +1 rate up
1 reply
Doctor Michael Karen March 19 2014 at 4:22 PM

Did you interview the family and ask them?

Flag +2 rate up
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