NEW YORK – Jerome Murdough was just looking for a warm place to sleep on a chilly night last month when he curled up in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing project, where he was arrested for trespassing.
A week later, the mentally ill homeless man was found dead in a Rikers Island jail cell that four city officials say had overheated to at least 100 degrees, apparently because of malfunctioning equipment.
The officials told The Associated Press that the 56-year-old former Marine was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which may have made him more vulnerable to heat. He also apparently did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air.
He basically baked to death, said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss specifics of the case.
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.
Murdough’s 75-year-old mother, Alma Murdough, said she did not learn of her son’s death until the AP contacted her last week, nearly a month after he died.
He was a very lovely, caring guy, said Murdough, adding that her son had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and that she had not seen him in about three years.
Jennifer J. Parish, an attorney at the New York-based Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, said Murdough appeared to be a man in need of care.
So Mr. Murdough violated the trespass law. So he suffered the consequences by going to jail, Parish said. But the jail system committed more serious harm to him. And the question is, will they ever be held responsible?