A picture of Jerome Murdough is held by family members. Murdough, 56, a mentally ill, homeless former Marine, arrested for sleeping in the roof landing of a New York City public housing project, died last month in a Rikers Island jail cell that city officials say was at least 100 degrees when his body was discovered. (Jason DeCrow/The Associated Press)
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NEW YORK — Jail officials asked for an excessive-heat problem to be fixed a day before a mentally ill inmate was found dead in a hundred-degree cell, but the repairs came too late because they were delayed by a long holiday weekend, according to documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
The two work orders for “too much heat” prepared on Feb. 14, a Friday, weren’t received until Feb. 18, the following Tuesday, because the maintenance department doesn’t receive requests during weekends, according to an email sent by a court-appointed monitor and filed last month in an ongoing federal lawsuit by The Legal Aid Society. In addition, that Monday was Presidents Day, a federal holiday.
The email by the deputy director of the Office of Compliance Consultants, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Manhattan in a case concerning heating conditions in the city’s Rikers Island jail complex, also revealed previously unknown details regarding the death of 56-year-old former Marine Jerome Murdough.
The AP first reported in March on suspicions about Murdough’s cause of death. One official who spoke at the time on the condition of anonymity described him as having “basically baked to death.” The mayor has called his death “very troubling,” and it prompted Department of Correction officials to suspend a correction officer, reassign a warden and transfer a mechanics supervisor.
Among those details, the email, citing an internal Department of Correction investigation, disclosed that Murdough’s internal body temperature, taken nearly four hours after he was discovered unresponsive and slumped at the edge of the foot of his bed with “a pool of vomit and blood on the floor,” was 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.44 Celsius). It said the cell was 101 degrees.
After Murdough was found dead in the early hours of Feb. 15 and several other cells were found to be more than 80 degrees, maintenance workers corrected the heat malfunction, the a Feb. 27 email said.
“To learn that Jerome Murdough died as a result of the city’s failure to remove him from a dangerous environment shows how senseless and avoidable his death was,” said family attorney Derek Sells, noting the family was preparing a lawsuit against the city. “Alma Murdough, Jerome’s mother, is beside herself at this news of how the city failed her son and wants to hold those responsible for his death accountable.”
A Department of Correction spokesman said the department would not comment, citing the pending criminal investigation by prosecutors.
How exactly Murdough died hasn’t yet been determined, and a spokeswoman for the medical examiner says tests are still pending. But the email, citing a Department of Correction preliminary finding issued the day after Murdough’s death, said he likely died of hyperthermia.
Though he had a history of seizures, the medical examiner investigator assigned to Murdough’s case “believes that the heat in his cell caused his body to shut down,” according to the email.
A correction doctor also found that Murdough, whose family said he suffered from mental illness and alcohol abuse over the years, had a “schizoaffective disorder and depression” and was on psychotropic medication, according to the email. Experts say that people on psychotropic medication can be more sensitive to heat.
A correction officer who screened him at intake on Feb. 8 found that he felt “hopeless” appeared “depressed” was “suicidal” and thus was in need of “constant supervision,” according to the email.
Carol Lackner, the correction officer assigned to patrol the mental observation unit where Murdough was housed, checking the inmate every half hour, abandoned her post around 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15, according to the email. Another correction officer found Murdough at 2:50 a.m. and notified medical staff five minutes later, according to the email. A mental health observation aide whose job is to check inmates every 15 minutes wasn’t assigned to the unit where Murdough was jailed, officials have said.
Murdough, who was locked into his cell around 10:30 p.m. Feb. 14, was left unchecked for no more than four hours, former Commissioner Mark Cranston told lawmakers in March.
Attempts to reach Lackner were unsuccessful. She has been suspended. A spokesman for the correction officers’ union didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Murdough was arrested Feb. 7 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 bail, according to court records.
About a dozen family members attended the former Marine Corps field artillery batteryman’s funeral during a modest service last month. He was buried in New Jersey.