A mentally ill man, Jerome Murdough, overheated and died in his Rikers Island cell last month. The man was arrested in early February for trespassing in a covered stairwell on the roof of a public housing project. Apparently, he was trying to find a place to sleep and to keep warm. He was then taken to Rikers Island, to eventually be booked and arraigned. A week after his arrest he was locked into a tiny cell at around 10:30 PM. Two hours later, although he was on suicide watch, Murdough, 56, was found dead. The results of his autopsy were inconclusive. However, officials close to the case are nearly certain that the cause of death was either dehydration or heat stroke.
According to his mother Alma Murdough, her son was diagnosed as bi-polar and schizophrenic. It was reported that he was taking anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medications. Those medications may have played a role in the reduction of his body’s ability to cool down by sweating, says Doctor Susi Vassallo, a professor at NYU’s School of Medicine and a supervisor of heat-related deaths at Rikers Island. In conjunction with the overheating death of the mentally ill Jerome Murdough, it was officially confirmed that his cell was abnormally hot. Due to faulty equipment and an air vent that Murdough had left unopened, the cell was a sizzling 100 degrees when his body was finally discovered. Even the nearby cells were reported to have had an internal temperature hovering at around 80 degrees. That type of exposure, Dr. Vassallo said, could have been fatal.
Though it is unclear as to what had been malfunctioning in the jail cell or why the inmate had not been checked on every fifteen minutes, the requirement for those on suicide watch in observational facilities, Murdough’s death has left more questions than answers. Supporters of the incarcerated mentally ill are calling the recent Rikers Island tragedy a failure of the city’s criminal justice system. By setting him at a bail he could not pay and locking him up instead of offering him care at a more appropriate facility, advocates of the mentally ill perceive this as not an accident but instead as an avoidable loss. Mark Cranston, Acting Commissioner for the Department of Corrections, provided a statement Wednesday expressing regret and also saying that the situation would be further investigated at all levels.
Murdough, a former Marine, had a criminal record constituting multiple trespassing misdemeanors, drinking in public and various drug charges. Members of his family say that he had joined the Marines directly out of high school. After the military, his mother said that he had developed a drinking problem and that he would wander off, only to inevitably return. For the last three years she had not seen her son. Neither would she find out about his death until nearly a month after his passing, when she was finally contacted by the press.
Rikers Island holds 12,000 inmates, of which about 40 percent are mentally ill. Jerome Murdough, one of the more recent and rare mentally ill convicts to become a casualty in the jail due to an unlikely overheating death, leaves behind a mother and a family.
By Bryan William Myers