“He basically baked to death,” an anonymous official at the notorious New York jail Rikers Island told the Associated Press about the death of a 56-year-old inmate who died in a cell that officials said had overheated to more than 100 degrees.
Jerome Murdough was a Marine veteran on several medications for his mental illness and seizures, who was locked up in a solitary cell in the mental observation unit, where he was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes. Instead, he was not discovered until four hours after his death, apparently from heat stroke and dehydration after hours of overheating in a six-by-ten cell. He was homeless when he was locked up a week earlier, arrested for sleeping in a stairwell at a public housing project. He had been arrested several times before on similarly minor charges — trespassing, public intoxication, and drug offenses — all likely stemming from his homelessness and substance abuse struggles.
Any one of these characteristics would have made Murdough particularly susceptible to ending up behind bars, and to gross mistreatment once there. As the Associated Press put it, “Advocates for mentally ill inmates in New York say the death represents the failure of the city’s justice system on almost every level: by arresting Murdough instead of finding him help, by setting bail at a prohibitive $2,500 and by not supervising him closely in what is supposed to be a special observation unit for inmates with mental illnesses.”
Jails and prisons are increasingly housing the mentally ill and those with substance abuse problems, as other resources and treatment programs dwindle.
This is the second report to emerge this month of a homeless man who died during a short stint in jail. 75-year-old Robert Taylor was found dead in his cell in pools of his own blood and feces, after other inmates had reportedly flagged his condition for staff multiple times. Other recent deaths included a 60-year-old mentally ill man who died in a jail cell on shoplifting charges, and a 22-year-old who died in county jail of a food allergy while being held on a misdemeanor marijuana arrest.
In prisons, which hold inmates for for much longer stints, neglect and mistreatment have led to many other deplorable deaths, particularly among the mentally ill.
New York is one of many states that have come under fire for its treatment of the significant mentally ill population behind bars, frequently placing the mentally ill in solitary confinement even though some courts have deemed it unconstitutional, and neglecting mental health treatment.
Murdough’s mother, who described him as a “lovely, caring guy” who would “give you the shirt off his back,” said she didn’t even learn of his death until a month later, when she was called by the Associated Press.