Mentally Ill Inmate ‘Baked to Death’ on Rikers Island

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Photo: Todd Maisel/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Here's a truly horrible story from the Associated Press: Officials say that Jerome Murdough, a homeless 56-year-old former Marine who was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medications, "basically baked to death" in an overheated Rikers Island cell. Murdough was arrested in February for trespassing after he was caught sleeping in the enclosed stairwell of a Harlem housing project. Held on $2,500 bail, he was placed inside a 6-by-10 cinderblock cell in a unit reserved for mentally ill inmates. Someone was supposed to check on him every 15 minutes, but he was left alone for four hours. By the time a Rikers Island employee finally came around, Murdough was dead, apparently because he had become dehydrated or suffered heat stroke.

When Murdough was found, his internal body temperature and the temperature in the cell were at least 100 degrees. Officials blamed "malfunctioning equipment" for the extreme heat. Apparently, Murdough did not open a vent that would have let in some cool air, as other inmates did. The psychotropic medications he was on also may have impaired his body's ability to cool itself. Department of Corrections spokesman Robin Campbell said that there will be an internal investigation into Murdough's death, "including issues of staff performance and the adequacy of procedures."

Murdough's mother, who said she did not learn of her son's death until she was contacted by the AP, said that he suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and a drinking problem. "He was a very lovely, caring guy," she said. His record included 11 misdemeanor convictions for crimes such as trespassing and minor drug charges. "So Mr. Murdough violated the trespass law. So he suffered the consequences by going to jail," said Jennifer J. Parish of New York's Urban Justice Center's Mental Health Project. "But the jail system committed more serious harm to him."