Mar 31, 2014
Jerome Murdough, a 56-year-old homeless man, was found dead in a Rikers Island jail cell. A New York city official said, “He basically baked to death.” The temperature in his cell was 100 degrees when guards found him, and may have been higher in the four hours since the time he was locked in his cell. Officials attributed the 100-degree temperature in his cell in the middle of March to malfunctioning equipment.
Murdough was a mentally ill ex-Marine. The medications he was taking may have made him more susceptible to the heat. Since he was being held in Rikers’ mental-observation unit, he was on suicide watch. Guards were supposed to check on Murdough every 15 minutes, yet no one did for four hours during which he died from the heat.
The reason Murdough was jailed in the first place was for “trespassing” in a housing project. His past criminal record consisted of 11 trespassing convictions, drinking in public, and minor drug offenses – in other words, for being homeless and mentally ill. Despite his poverty, his bail was set at $2500 – not a high amount for many people, but obviously too much for a person in Murdough’s circumstance.
Murdough was able to make it through the Marines. He was able to survive homelessness. And he was able to live with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
What he couldn’t survive was the American prison system. Prison budgets have been cut, which means infrastructure like ventilation systems are not maintained and staff reductions prevent prisoners like Murdough from receiving attention in a timely fashion.
People like Murdough are victims of a society that treats homeless people, the mentally-ill and prisoners as throwaways. The attitude of those in power is to just let them all die. As Dostoevsky said, “The degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” and the conditions of U.S. prisons demonstrate its barbarism.