Mentally Ill Inmate "Basically Baked to Death" in Rikers Cell

The Slatest
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March 19 2014 2:27 PM

Mentally Ill Inmate "Basically Baked to Death" in Rikers Cell

114290317-view-of-buildings-at-the-rikers-island-penitentiary
A view of buildings at the Rikers Island penitentiary complex

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

The Associated Press this afternoon brings us the rather dismaying story of Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill homeless man who, in the words of one Rikers Island official, "basically baked to death" in his cell last month:

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

According to the city officials, Murdough was locked alone into his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 14, a week after his arrest. Because he was in the mental-observation unit, he was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes as part of suicide watch, they said. But Murdough was not discovered until four hours later, at about 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead.
When Murdough was found and his cell opened, his internal body temperature and the temperature in the cell were at least 100 degrees. Those temperatures could have been higher before he was discovered because the cell had been closed for several hours, the officials said.
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The medical examiner's office says an autopsy proved inconclusive as to the cause of death, but the AP's sources note that the anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication that Murdough was taking may have made him more vulnerable to heat. He also apparently did not open a small vent in his cell that would have allowed some cool air in.

The 56-year-old former Marine was arrested for trespassing in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of of a Harlem public housing project where, from the sounds of it, he was just looking for a warm place to sleep. It gets worse: Murdough's 75-year-old mother, Alma Murdough, says she didn't learn of her son's death until the AP reached out to her last week, nearly a month after his death. His public defender, meanwhile, apparently wasn't told of his fate until three days after he was found in his cell. Read the full AP report here.

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