A photo of Jerome Murdough is held by his mother Alma Murdough, left, and sister Cheryl Warner at Alma Murdough's home March 12 in the Queens borough of New York after the death of the homeless Marine. (Jason DeCrow / AP)
NEW YORK — A jail guard investigators say left her post without permission as an inmate lay dying in his 101-degree cell had been disciplined four years earlier for a similar infraction, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Carol Lackner was accused in 2010 of leaving her post and leaving Rikers Island entirely without permission while working in a women’s section of the jail, according to the documents, obtained through a public records request.
That administrative charge was settled, her attorney says, when Lackner agreed to give up five vacation days. He said she was on a break when she left, which is nevertheless a policy violation.
More recently, Lackner was suspended for 30 days following the Feb. 15 death of 56-year-old mentally ill inmate Jerome Murdough. A city corrections investigation found she abandoned her post in a mental health observation unit 20 minutes before the homeless ex-Marine was discovered unresponsive in his overheated cell.
Murdough “basically baked to death” when he was left unchecked for at least four hours in a part of the jail that had a malfunctioning heater, a city official earlier told the AP. While logbook entries indicate Lackner toured the area every half hour as required, she isn’t seen on video doing so, according to another city official. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss specifics of the case.
Lackner, 34, didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Her attorney, Damond Carter, denied accusations she left her post without permission. He said she was brought in as a relief guard after effectively working three straight shifts and wasn’t given any information about complaints of excessive heat, which she herself could feel.
“It’s unfair to lay everything at her foot,” said Carter, emphasizing that multiple factors contributed to Murdough’s death, including his being sent to Rikers in the first place after being unable to make $2,500 bail on a misdemeanor trespassing arrest.
The deaths of Murdough and Bradley Ballard, another mentally ill inmate whose death five months before Murdough’s in a similar mental observation unit was reported by the AP last week, have raised questions about the city’s ability to properly care for the mentally ill, who represent a growing proportion of inmates.
A lawyer for Murdough’s mother, who is planning a $25 million lawsuit against the city, said in a statement that no other prisoners should “suffer and die at the hands of corrections officers who do not live up to their responsibilities.”
“Had the city properly supervised this officer, who had a history of abandoning her post, Jerome might still be alive,” Derek Sells said.
Murdough suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to his family. He was on psychotropic medication, which experts say can make people more sensitive to the heat. The medical examiner’s office says more tests are needed to determine exactly how he died, but an investigator said he appeared to have died from hyperthermia.
In addition to suspending Lackner over the Murdough case, corrections officials also reassigned a warden and transferred a mechanics supervisor.
The documents obtained by the AP also show correction officials brought administrative charges against Lackner in 2011 for failing to report that she had been arrested. Lackner allegedly kicked in a wooden gate at a man’s Queens home, according to a criminal complaint. That case was settled with her pleading guilty to disorderly conduct, a noncriminal violation, and paying $1,100 in restitution. There was no administrative disposition of that case, her lawyer said.
Lackner met with corrections officials in 2012 but never faced a trial on the administrative charges. Personnel records of correction officers, including disciplinary matters, are confidential, a department spokesman said.