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NYC Council to address death of former Marine in hot cell

Mar. 27, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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New York City lawmakers plan on asking Department of Correction officials at a budget hearing about a mentally ill inmate, former Marine Jerome Murdough, who a city official told The Associated Press 'basically baked to death' last month in a New York City jail cell that was at least 100 degrees, two of the committee's members said.
New York City lawmakers plan on asking Department of Correction officials at a budget hearing about a mentally ill inmate, former Marine Jerome Murdough, who a city official told The Associated Press 'basically baked to death' last month in a New York City jail cell that was at least 100 degrees, two of the committee's members said. (Jason DeCrow / AP)
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NEW YORK — Lawmakers plan on asking Department of Correction officials at a budget hearing about a mentally ill inmate who a city official told The Associated Press “basically baked to death” last month in a New York City jail cell that was at least 100 degrees, two of the committee’s members said.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the committee on fire and criminal justice, will be addressing the case of homeless former Marine Jerome Murdough during the preliminary budget hearing on Thursday, her spokesman confirmed.

And Councilman Rory Lancman said he planned on asking “pointed questions” about how the 56-year-old man, whose family said suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, could have been allowed to die in a mental observation unit where he was supposed to be regularly checked by correction officers.

“From where I sit, I see a department that is in crisis, if not chaos,” said Lancman, a first-term councilman from Queens. “Mr. Murdough’s personal tragedy epitomizes almost all that’s wrong with the city’s corrections policies, its homelessness policies and problems with its policies on dealing with people with mental illness.”

Four city officials — speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t permitted to discuss details of the ongoing case — said that Murdough, who was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, was found dead in the early hours of Feb. 15 in a cell that had overheated, apparently by malfunctioning equipment. He did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air, they said.

More tests are needed to determine exactly how Murdough died, a spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner said.

Murdough had been arrested about a week earlier on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing building and was sent to Rikers Island after being unable to make $2,500 in bail, according to court records.

His 75-year-old mother, Alma Murdough, wasn’t notified about his death until nearly a month later, when she was contacted by the AP.

“The Murdough case epitomized so many cross currents of tragedy,” said Lancman. “A veteran who couldn’t get services from the country he served; a city that criminalizes homelessness and mental illness; and a corrections department that hasn’t figured out how to protect both inmates and officers.”

Forty percent of the roughly 12,000 inmates who make up the nation’s second-largest jail system have a mental health diagnosis, according to DOC statistics.

A spokesman for the department said acting Commissioner Mark Cranston will be constrained in his testimony about Murdough’s case because he can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.

DOC officials have previously acknowledged Murdough’s cell was unusually hot and said they’ve addressed two unnamed factors an outside consultant identified as contributing to the excess heat.

The hearing also comes just days after a DOC captain was arrested by FBI agents and charged with violating the civil rights of an inmate who died in 2012 after swallowing a toxic soap ball in a now-shuttered solitary confinement unit for mentally ill inmates at Rikers.

Murdough, who the Marine Corps said was discharged as a private first class, served from 1975 to 1978 as a field artillery batteryman. He was locked alone into his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10:30 p.m. Feb. 14, a week after his arrest, the officials have said. 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 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead.

Mayor Bill de Blasio last week called Murdough’s death “very troubling” and has appointed Joseph Ponte, who most recently headed state corrections in Maine, to be the city’s new commissioner. Ponte begins next month and is touted as a reformer who has worked to reduce the use of solitary confinement.

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