Raise the Bar on Our Prisons

Last month Jerome Murdough, a homeless 56-year-old former Marine with a history of mental illness, died in a Rikers Island cell. According to several prison officials, Murdough died from the extremely high temperature that reached 100 degrees or more in the cell. Apparently, the heating equipment malfunctioned, sending temperatures in some of the cells soaring to sauna-like levels.

Other inmates, in order to escape the heat, were able to open small windows to allow some cool air into their cells. Murdough, for whatever reason, didn’t open his window and succumbed to the heat.

His crime? He was found sleeping in a stairwell on a Harlem rooftop, where he was trying to find some warmth on a chilly day. Arrested for trespassing, his bail was set for $2,500, an amount which he couldn’t afford, and he was immediately incarcerated in Rikers.

Of course, Rikers bears some responsibility for the shameful and inhumane circumstances surrounding Murdough’s death. No one had checked on him for four hours, even though prison policy mandates that mentally ill inmates should be checked on every 15 minutes. But Murdough’s death is emblematic of a lot more than the problems at Rikers.

Responsibility for Murdough’s death rests with the criminal justice system, the NYPD and the Veterans’ Administration. All our systems designed to help someone like Murdough failed miserably. Those systems, and the billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money invested in them, were designed to provide Murdough — someone who put his life on the line for his country — with the best quality of life possible; instead, the systems directly or indirectly led to his demise.

It was clear to all involved in the incarceration of Murdough that he was mentally ill; otherwise he wouldn’t have been placed in that unit of Rikers. It’s one thing if a mentally unbalanced individual poses a threat to commit violent crime; it’s quite another if someone just needs a warm place to sleep.

Responsibility also rests with the NYPD. Why would they arrest a mentally ill man instead of finding him a homeless shelter where he would be safe and warm? All the NYPD had to do was contact any number of city agencies to house and treat Murdough. That would have accomplished taking him out of the stairwell and placing him somewhere safe. And doesn’t the NYPD have more pressing business to do than to invest resources in arresting and filing charges against a homeless individual? It appears to us that there are far more pressing issues of criminality in the city’s housing projects than someone trying to find shelter from a brutal winter. Since when is trying to not freeze to death a crime?

Murdough’s death also implicates the New York City justice system. Fact: Murdough was homeless. Fact: he was mentally ill, taking anti-psychotic medication. Fact: he didn’t have a nickel to his name. Yet some judge set his bail at $2,500. Given Murdough’s poverty, it might as well have been $2.5 million dollars. In this city where Wall Street crooks accused of stealing millions and bilking thousands are out on bail until trial, denying that same right to someone who neither robbed nor committed an act of violence points to serious flaws in our courts. Justice is supposed to be blind — not dumb.

As a veteran, Murdough should have been provided with housing and health care from the VA. Instead of locking him up, the NYPD or Rikers officials should have notified the VA of his condition. Furthermore, how did the VA caseworkers permit this mentally-ill man to roam the streets on his own?

Murdough’s mistreatment and subsequent unnecessary death should also precipitate a wholesale review of how our criminal justice system operates, not only in New York City, but across the country. The U.S. has more people in prison per capita than any other country in the world. Since 1987, the U.S. prison population has tripled; the number of individuals either on probation or in prison is at more than 8 million, exceeding the population of Washington State. We also spend more than $600 billion on our prisons that have become revolving doors for criminals: 40 percent of state prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release.

It’s time for prison reform in New York and the nation. We have to find ways of caring for those who can’t function in society, and methods of rehabilitating those who commit crimes but are not violent. The key to having a more humane and just society is not throwing away the key.