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Officials Investigating Death of Mentally Ill Homeless Vet Who ‘Baked to Death’ in a New York City Jail Cell | The Nation

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Steven Hsieh

Steven Hsieh

Stories that matter. Tips: shsieh@thenation.com.

Officials Investigating Death of Mentally Ill Homeless Vet Who ‘Baked to Death’ in a New York City Jail Cell

Jerome Murdough

A picture of Jerome Murdough is held by his mother Alma Murdough. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

New York City’s Department of Corrections is investigating the death of a mentally ill homeless man who died last month in a jail cell that had reportedly reached scorching temperatures, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Jerome Murdough, 56, was arrested in February for trespassing after being discovered sleeping in the stairwell of a Harlem public housing project. City officials locked him up at Rikers Island, setting bail at $2,500. He was found dead a week later in his cell, which had reportedly reached temperatures of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit due to equipment malfunctions.

“He basically baked to death,” an official familiar with the situation told the AP’s Jake Pearson. An autopsy suggests that Murdoch, who was taking antipsychotic and antiseizure medication, may have died from extreme dehydration or heat stroke. Murdough had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to his mother. Here’s more from the report:

According to the city officials, Murdough was locked alone into his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10.30pm on February 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 2.30am on February 15. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead.

The Department of Corrections released a statement Wednesday announcing the probe of Murdough’s death:

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.

Conditions at Rikers Island came under media scrutiny earlier this week, when The New York Times reported a recent surge of violence at the jail. According to records, Rikers saw a 240 percent jump in corrections officers’ use of force this past decade, even as the jail’s population declined 15 percent. Just this year alone, fourteen inmates have been slashed or stabbed.

The Times report portrays a jail staff lacking the necessary training to handle mentally ill inmates, often relying on force or extra-punitive measures such as solitary confinement in response to unruly behavior.

According to DOC figures (pdf), the proportion of inmates with mental health diagnoses has steadily risen over recent years. About 40 percent of New York City’s prisoners have mental health diagnoses, up from 33 percent in 2012 and 20 percent in 2006.

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Advocates say Murdough’s death is a result of the city’s reliance on punishment rather than psychiatric care when mentally ill people commit misdemeanor crimes.

“So Mr Murdough violated the trespass law. So he suffered the consequences by going to jail,”Jennifer Parish, an attorney at the Urban Justice Center, told the AP. “But the jail system committed more serious harm to him. And the question is, ‘Will they ever be held responsible?’”

 

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