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NYC Dept. of Corrections Responds to Allegations Mentally Ill Man ‘Basically Baked to Death’ in Jail Cell

A 56-year-old former Marine died while in custody at Rikers Island, New York City’s jail complex. According to one official close to the case, Jerome Murdough “basically baked to death” in his cell when temperatures topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

In mid-February, Murdough, who suffered from mental illness and was homeless at the time, was arrested for trespassing after curling up to sleep in a warm stairwell on a frigid night. Taken to Rikers Island,  the high-risk inmate on a number of medications for his mental illness was supposed to be looked after every 15 minutes. Instead, four hours later, he was found dead.

Officials told AP that the inmate had a small vent in his cell that would have prevented him from overheating, but he did not use it and that his medication made have made him especially vulnerable to the heat.  Other reports suggest that the heating problem was not isolated to Murdough’s cell alone and that temperatures in several cells had risen above 80 degrees..

In response to the allegations, Acting Commissioner Mark Cranston of the New York City Department of Corrections issued a statement admitting that the temperature in Murdough’s cell was ‘unusually high’ and announcing that an investigation had been launched in the case.

“The safety of inmates and staff is our top priority, and the death of an inmate under our supervision is never acceptable. 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.,” the DOC statement read. “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. The department accordingly has taken remedial action to correct any mechanical problems in the immediate facility and to ensure that safe temperatures are maintained throughout the entire jail system, particularly in areas housing vulnerable inmates.”

Murdough’s family, however, insist fixing the heating is not enough to make up for the man who they call “a very loving, caring guy.” Although they acknowledge he had a “beer problem” and had gotten into trouble with the law for minor offenses, going to jail for trespassing should not cost anyone their lives.

“We want justice for what was done,” Wanda Mehala, one of Murdough’s sisters 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.”

Photo Credit: Murdough/Family Photo

About the author

Tamar is a New York based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in over 15 publications. You can catch her work regularly on Issue Hawk, Latest, Jspace, and MediaGlobal.