Jerome Murdough, a 56-year-old former U.S. Marine was arrested last month in New York City for trespassing. He was looking for a warm place to sleep at a public housing development. He was incarcerated at Rikers Island on a $2,500 bail. On February 14th he was found dead in his jail cell. The cell was overheated to 100 degrees or more due to faulty heating equipment.
Mr. Murdough was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication which made him more susceptible to dehydration and heat stroke. He had been placed on suicide watch and the correctional officers were supposed to check him every 15 minutes. An anonymous official stated, “He was basically baked to death.”
“It’s pretty absurd on its face that an individual can die from excessive heat in a jail where people are supposed to be under post surveillance, I mean people don’t die in a matter of minutes from excessive heat, it takes a while,” stated John Boston, director of Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project. According to experts on heat related deaths, psychotropic medications impairs the body’s ability to cool itself by sweating. After several hours, exposure to such intense heat can cause death.
Alma Murdough, James Murdough’s mother, stated that the she only learned of her son’s death from the Associated Press last week. Mr. Murdough’s public defender was notified three days after this tragic death, according to the New York Department of Corrections.
James Murdough’s record revealed that his prior convictions were for minor misdemeanors such as drinking in public and trespassing. He had a long history of mental illness. James Murdough should not have been incarcerated for this minor charge, but should have received care at a psychiatric center. Of the 12,000 inmates who make up the nation’s second-largest jail system, about 40 percent are mentally ill, and a third of them suffer from serious mental problems.
The treatment of James Murdough is further proof of the indifference of many of our prison systems to the welfare of their inmates. While this former Marine was dying over several hours or more–What were the correctional officers doing? This callous attitude toward inmates can be found in other states. In Texas, 13 inmates have died from heat related deaths during the last five years. The inmate’s body temperatures ranged from 106 degrees to 109 degrees. “I’m supposed to be watching them, I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells,” said the corrections supervisor for one of the Texas prisons.