NY warden reassigned in inmate’s death in hot cell
NEW YORK (AP) — The warden of the 2,100-inmate New York City jail where a homeless, mentally ill veteran “baked to death” in an overheated cell in February has been demoted and transferred to another unit that doesn’t house mentally ill inmates.
Rose Argo, the warden of the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island, didn’t appear to be directly involved or negligent in the death of 56-year-old former Marine Jerome Murdough, but Department of Correction officials said in a statement Thursday that “it does appear that staff did not follow basic procedures.”
An internal investigation also found “overall issues” with the heating system in the jail, the statement said, and the mechanics supervisor there was transferred to a unit that works on projects where no inmates are housed.
An already-suspended correction officer on post when Murdough died also has been suspended another 10 days without pay, amounting to 30 total days, the maximum allowed under city law, the officials said.
“The department is taking steps to address the breakdown of inadequate procedures, staff performance, and maintenance, to ensure that tragedies such as this never happen again,” the statement said.
Murdough was found dead in a cell that four officials told The Associated Press was at least 100 degrees. He’d been locked in his cell in the mental observation unit about 10:30 p.m. Feb. 14 but wasn’t discovered until four hours later, on Feb. 15, they said. Murdough’s family said he suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and he was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, the officials said.
One of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss specifics of the case, said Murdough “basically baked to death.”
More tests are needed to determine exactly how he died, the medical examiner’s office said. But the officials, all with detailed knowledge of the case, said preliminary findings point to extreme dehydration. Exposure to high heat for people who are on psychotropic drugs can be fatal, experts said.
Murdough was arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge on the night of Feb. 7 after police found him sleeping in the stairwell of a public housing building, and was sent to Rikers Island after being unable to post $2,500 bail, according to court records.
Testifying before a City Council hearing last month, Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Mark Cranston said a malfunctioning damper diverted heat to the top level of the two-tier observation unit where Murdough was housed and that a gauge on the lower level, which was calling for the heat, failed to register the high temperature on the upper level.
Murdough was a private first class in the Marine Corps, serving from 1975 to 1978 as a field artillery batteryman. His 75-year-old mother wasn’t notified of his death and learned nearly a month later that he had died when the AP contacted her.
Prosecutors in the Bronx are also reviewing the case. Argo didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday.
Reached by phone, Murdough’s sister, Cheryl Warner, said the disciplinary actions weren’t satisfying.
“I believe some people should be fired and not just demoted or suspended,” she said, noting the family is considering its legal options.
Advocates for mentally ill inmates have said Murdough’s death represents the failure of the city’s justice system to adequately care for a population that by the nature of their problems tend to come in contact with the system.
In New York City, the nation’s second-largest jail system with almost 12,000 inmates, about 40 percent has a mental health diagnosis, according to DOC statistics. About two thirds of violent incidents involve mentally ill inmates, the statistics show.
Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed the head of Maine’s state corrections system, Joseph Ponte, to be the city’s next commissioner, touting his reputation for “turning corrections systems around and making them better.” Ponte is credited for reducing by two thirds the number of inmates in solitary confinement in Maine. He starts his New York job Monday, but may face tough opposition.
At a Thursday press conference, Norman Seabrook, president of the powerful 9,000-member correction officers’ union, lambasted Ponte and said a non-New Yorker wasn’t equipped to handle the challenges of the city’s jails. Flanked by graphic blown-out photographs of slashing victims from inside city jails, Seabrook said: “We need leadership, we don’t need a reformer.”
In a statement, Ponte said he looked forward to discussing Seabrook’s concerns.