NEW YORK – The mayor called the death of a mentally ill, homeless former Marine who was found in a jail cell that had overheated to at least 100 degrees "very troubling" Thursday, while expressing his condolences to the man's family.
Bill de Blasio, speaking at an unrelated bill signing, said that the investigation into Jerome Murdough's death last month on Rikers Island was ongoing but that he was struck by The Associated Press' account in a story Wednesday about the 56-year-old man's death last month.
"We don't know all the facts yet ... but obviously the allegations we've heard so far are very troubling," he said. "My heart goes out to his family; we lost someone who served his country."
Four city officials told the AP that Murdough, who was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, was found dead in the early hours of Feb. 15 in a cell that had overheated, apparently by malfunctioning equipment. He also did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air, they said.
One of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss specifics of the case, said Murdough "basically baked to death."
The medical examiner's office said that an autopsy was inconclusive and that more tests were needed to determine Murdough's exact cause of death. But the officials, all with detailed knowledge of the case, say initial indications from the autopsy and investigation point to extreme dehydration or heat stroke.
Murdough's 75-year-old mother, Alma Murdough, said Thursday she appreciated the mayor's comments but insisted more had to be done to find out how her son died.
"They knew he had problems. There's no excuse," she said of her son, who she said had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
"They've got a lot of stuff to check," she said of the investigation. "A lot of stuff to correct."
The Department of Correction is investigating the death. It has said it's already addressed two contributing factors an outside consultant identified as causing the excess heat. It also said temperature checks immediately after the death revealed that several cells nearby were over 80 degrees.
Murdough, who the Marine Corps said Thursday was discharged as a private first class who served from 1975 to 1978 as a field artillery batteryman, was arrested Feb. 7 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a public housing building in Harlem. He was sent to Rikers after being unable to post a $2,500 bail, court records show. He was found dead a week later, in the early hours of Feb. 15, the officials said.
Advocates for mentally ill inmates say the city's justice system failed by arresting him instead of finding him help, by setting prohibitive bail and by failing to supervise him closely in a special observation unit for inmates with mental illnesses.
On Thursday, de Blasio touted his pick to head the nation's second-largest jail system, Joseph Ponte, as a reformer with experience improving other jail systems around the country.
"He is someone who has taken on very troubled situations on jail systems and had success," he said. Ponte ran the jail system in Memphis, Tenn., and currently runs corrections for the state of Maine. "He's going to join us quite soon and we know we have to make some serious reforms."
Ponte is credited with reducing Maine's use of solitary confinement. He starts in New York next month.
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 department said. Advocates and others have long argued that correction officers are not sufficiently trained to deal with mentally ill inmates whose needs are complex.
That's a point Norman Seabrook, head of the city's powerful 9,000-member correction officers' union, also made Thursday.
"It's unfortunate because we're not trained enough to deal with that," he said of mentally ill inmates.
Seabrook said Murdough didn't appear to be in distress the night he died and said a correction officer was "making periodic rounds" in the two-tier housing area where he was jailed.
According to the city officials, Murdough was locked alone into his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10:30 p.m. 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.