A deal has finally been reached for the family of Jerome Murdough, the homeless former U.S. Marine who baked to death in a jail cell in New York City earlier this year. Although his mother, Alma, originally filed suit for $25 million, the city settled with the family on Friday, October 31 for $2.25 million. Comptroller Scott Stringer also offered an apology on behalf of the city to the Murdough family for what happened. Attorney Derek Sells, who is representing the family, said the agreement was “a sign that the administration is willing to work with people mistreated by city agencies and officials.”
Murdough, a 56-year-old mentally ill homeless veteran was arrested on trespassing charges in February for taking shelter in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing project. Murdough was sent to Rikers Island to await trial because he was unable to pay the $2500 bail. Due to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, Murdough was on medication and put in a special observation unit at the facility, where inmates are to be checked on every 15 minutes. Eight days after being arrested, on February 15, Murdough was found slumped over at the foot of his bed in a pool of vomit and blood, with an internal body temperature of 103-degrees. The temperature in the jail cell was 101-degrees due to a known issue with the heating system. Unfortunately, due to a long holiday, the problem wasn’t fixed in time to save Murdough’s life. An official told AP investigators at the time that Murdough had “basically baked to death.”
Sells told the AP at the time that “the medical examiner’s findings fully support the family’s views that Jerome’s death was in violation of his civil rights, his human rights and amounts to criminally negligent homicide.” Where was Carol Lackner, the guard on duty at the time all of this was taking place? Wouldn’t she have noticed Murdough acting strangely, or wouldn’t he have cried out for help? He may have, but according to reports, Lackner was not even on site at the time. Officials say no one had checked on him for at least four hours. An investigation by city corrections found the guard had abandoned her post about 20 minutes before Murdough was discovered. Although logbook entries record that she had walked the halls every half hour according to requirements, survelliance video shows she didn’t walk the halls at all. Thirty-four year old Lackner denies the charges.
Lackner was also accused in 2010 of leaving her post without permission and leaving the facility entirely. Charges were settled when she gave up five of her vacation days. Documents obtained by the AP also show charges being brought against Lackner in 2011 for failing to report that she had been arrested. According to criminal complaint, Lackner had allegedly kicked in a wooden gate at a man’s home in Queens, though she later pled guilty to disorderly conduct and paid the man $1100 in restitution.
Murdough’s mother was not contacted regarding her son’s death until the AP did so nearly a month after the fact. She said she hadn’t seen him for three years. “He had beer problems. Drinking beer. That was his downfall. Other than that, he was a very nice guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back.” She says her son joined the Marines straight out of high school and served in Okinawa, Japan. His family noticed that his mental illness and thirst for alcohol seemed more pronounced when he returned to the States. His sister Cheryl Warner said he would then disappear for months at a time. “When he wanted to venture off, we let him, we allowed him to come and go. He always came back.”
This isn’t the first time Rikers Island has been in the news for mistreatment of it’s inmates. Last year, a mentally ill inmate died after sexually mutilating himself while locked in a cell by himself for seven days. Three other Rikers inmates died last year from non-natural causes as well, according to the department of correction statistics.
Advocates for mentally ill inmates in New York are pushing for reform at Rikers Island, saying that arresting Murdough instead of finding help for him, setting his bail at an amount he clearly couldn’t afford, and neglecting him in what is supposed to be a special observation unit is a failure of the city’s justice system on every level.