Jerome Murdough, a 56-year-old former Marine, died in his jail cell on February 14, and his family is demanding answers. Murdough was picked up for a minor crime about a week before his death and put into the hot cinderblock cell that would be his demise. The story brings out a number of issues concerning prison conditions and treatment of the mentally ill in the justice system.
Here is what you need to know:
1. He Was Arrested For Sleeping in a Staircase
On a cold night in February, the 56-year-old Murdough attempted to find a warm place to sleep when he lay down in the stairwell of a Harlem public housing project. According to the AP, it was here that he was woken up by police, arrested for trespassing, and taken to jail.
His bail was set at a substantial fine of $2,500 for trespassing.
2. In Prison He ‘Baked to Death’
Murdough was living in a 6-by-10-foot concrete cell at Rikers Island for one week between his arrest and death. Because he was mentally ill and on suicide watch, Murdough was supposed to be checked on ever 15 minutes, but on the night of February 14, he was left unchecked for four hours as the room got hotter. At around 2:30 a.m. he was found on his bed already dead.
AP reports that his room and body temperature were over 100 when he was found, but they were likely higher earlier on.
Murdough was also unaware or unable to open the small in his cell that would allow cool air in.
An anonymous insider told the AP, “He Basically baked to death.”
3. He Was on Medication That May Have Made Him Sensitive to Heat
According to the AP report, Murdough was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication for his illness, and either one could have affected the way he responded to heat.
These drugs deter the body from producing the sweat it needs to cool down, and also force it to retain more heat.
4. He Was a Former Marine
Murdough grew up in Queens and joined the Marine Corps out of high school. Family members said that they knew he did at least some time in Okinawa, Japan. When he returned to New York, he reportedly started drinking more and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The public defender representing him said that he had 11 misdemeanor convictions on his record for various minor crimes like drinking in public and trespassing.
5. 40 Percent of People in Rikers Are Mentally Ill
Between of the prisons on Rikers Island, the facility handles nearly 12,000 inmates a day, according to the New York Times. In the last eight years, the percentage of inmates with mental illness has doubled, from about 20 to 40 percent in 2014, and many suggest the guards at the prison are not trained to deal properly with this population.