Jerome Murdough just wanted to get out of the chilly night air when he curled up in a stairwell on the roof of a public housing project in Harlem.  He was subsequently 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 was at least 100 degrees because of malfunctioning temperature equipment.

Officials said that the 56-year-old former Marine was on anti-psychotics and anti-seizure medication, which made him vulnerable to heat.  He also did not open a vent in his cell, as others knew to do, to let in cooler air.

“He basically baked to death,” said one official.

The medical examiner’s office ruled the autopsy inconclusive and said more tests are being done on cause of death.  Anonymous officials reportedly told the Associated Press that the initial autopsy did indicate extreme dehydration and/or heat stroke as the cause of death.

Advocates for mentally ill prisoners say that the death represents the failure of the city’s justice system on every level:  by arresting Murdough instead of finding him medical help, by setting bail too high for him to post ($2,500), and by not supervising him in the special observation unit designed for the mentally ill.  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.”

It is too late for Murdough.  Murdough’s 75-year-old mother, Alma Murdough, said she did not learn of her son’s death until the media contacted her, a month after his death.  His public defender was told three days after his death.

“He was a very loving, caring guy…he’d give you the shirt off his back,” said Murdough, adding that her son had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and that she hadn’t seen him in 3 years.

Murdough grew up in Queens, graduated from high school, then joined the Marine Corps doing at least one stint in Okinawa, Japan.  When he returned, both his mental illness and alcoholism became pronounced and he disappeared for months at a time, finding warmth and shelter in hospitals, shelters, and on the streets.  Murdough’s criminal record had 11 misdemeanors, related to his issues, including trespassing, drinking in public, and drugs.

Murdough was locked in a 6 x 10 cell at 10:30 p.m. on February 14th, a week after his arrest.  He was placed in the mental-observation unit and was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes, according to officials.  He was not discovered until 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15th, slumped over his bed.  He was already deceased.  His internal body temperature and cell were at least 100 degrees.  The temperature could have been higher as it took several hours to discover him in the completely enclosed cinderblock cell.

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 several hours could be fatal to someone on medication.

In 2013, at least 3 inmates died from non-natural causes.  Of the 12,000 inmates who make up the nation’s second-largest jail system, 40% are mentally ill and a third suffer from serious mental illness.  Advocates have long argued that correctional employees are not sufficiently trained to deal with complex mental illness.

Catherine Abate, a member of the New York City Board of Correction, an agency that oversees the city’s jails, said that Murdough should have been referred to psychiatric care, not imprisoned.  Jennifer Parish, an attorney with Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project said that Murdough was a man in need, “So Mr. Murdough violated the trespass law.  So he suffered the consequences…the jail system committed more serious harm to him…will they ever be held responsible?”

Wanda Mehala, one of Murdough’s sisters said, “We want justice for what was done.  He wasn’t just some…homeless person…he was loved…he had feelings.”


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