An entire month after the tragedy occurred, a 75-year old mother received a call from the Associated Press carrying the devastating news that her son, 56-year old Queens native Jerome Murdough, suffered an unusual death in the confines of New York’s most notorious house of torture, Rikers Island “Correctional” Facility. Murdough, who was arrested on trumped-up “trespassing” charges back in February and thrown into an overheated jail cell, suffered from an extreme form of schizophrenia and had a severe case of bipolar disorder. And while the circumstances leading to his death may have been out of the ordinary, the cruel treatment and abuse he received at the hands of the Rikers Island Staff was anything but unusual. Despite incident after incident of well-publicized abuses, Rikers Island remains America’s “second-largest jail system” and a facility in which an astounding 40% of inmates suffer from some form of mental illness.
While those who knew Mr. Murdough best say that he always displayed some signs of mental illness even when he was a young boy, it wasn’t until later, upon his return to New York after years of serving as an Officer of the United States Marine Corps that his symptoms were much more obvious and pronounced. Doctors eventually prescribed him to “anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication”, medicine that could potentially leave his body “more vulnerable to heat.” As time went on his family began to notice that Murdough would often simply wander off on an ever more frequent basis. In the words of his sister, Cheryl Warner, “When he wanted to venture off, we let him, we allowed him to come and go. He always came back.” This last time, however, he didn’t return. And according to his mother it had been about three years since she had last seen him.
Then on a cold winter night in February, 2014, Jerome Murdough, now homeless and alone, “curled up in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing project where he was arrested for trespassing.” Police, instead of letting this man be or at least trying to find him somewhere to sleep for the night, threw him into a tiny cell at the local jail and set his bond at a ridiculous amount of $2,500. A week later, during the late night hours of February 14, Murdough was transferred to Rikers Island and forced into a “6-by-10 cinderblock cell” in which the temperature was set at more than 100 degrees. (Jail officials later claimed this was due to “malfunctioning equipment.”) Even Robin Campbell, a Department of Corrections spokesperson, now acknowledges that the temperature in the cell was “unusually high.” And so, an entire week after being initially arrested, Jerome Murdough was made to endure immense suffering under even more miserably intolerable conditions, conditions to which his body had strange reactions. In the words of one official, he “basically baked to death.” It is not known for certain how long this excruciatingly painful death took to occur, because the jail staff didn’t even bother to check on him until four hours after he’d been placed in the cell. When they finally did, they discovered his lifeless body heated to well over 100 degrees!
Jerome Murdough’s life and the sheer disregard his captors had for it are but yet another example of what it means to be poor in America. It is becoming increasingly obvious that being poor is in and of itself is treated as an intolerable crime, worthy of whatever means of vilification and punishment the capitalist system is capable of imposing. For what crime did Jerome Murdough stand accused which was worth throwing his life away to a virtual oven, other than not possessing enough wealth and power to be able to place a roof over his head at night?
A new break in the case appears to have come following the announcement of Murdough’s mother’s intention to sue NYC for a purported $25 million. A Rikers Island staffer named Carol Lackner, who was on duty in the unit where Jerome Murdough literally baked to death in a 101° cell, is alleged to have left her post during the period when Murdough was dying. What’s more, this isn’t the first time she’s done this, having previously left the entire facility during a short break back in 2010. According to the Associated Press, Lackner’s attorney Damond Carter insists that “multiple factors contributed to Murdough’s death, including his being sent to Rikers in the first place after being unable to make $2,500 bail on a misdemeanor trespassing arrest.” If this attorney is making the case that Mr. Murdough should never have been imprisoned there to begin with, then he has a valid point. But if he is insinuating that blame for the death somehow rests on the inmate’s own shoulders for having been sent to jail in the first place, then that insinuation is truly reprehensible. Damond Carter’s own statement carries the key words: “unable to pay”. Jerome Murdough did not willingly enter into a 101° cell; he was in fact forced into it for no other reason than he was poor and homeless. To argue, if indeed that is what Mr. Carter intended, that Mr. Murdough contributed to his own demise by failing to stay out of jail is to essentially make the case that a death sentence is an appropriate response for a misdemeanor “trespassing” charge. Jerome Murdough’s death, as well as the death of Bradley Ballard five months prior, are indicative of Rikers Island’s blurring of the lines between a prison camp and a death camp.