A malfunctioning damper diverted heat to the top level of a two-tier observation unit where a mentally ill, homeless veteran inmate died in a cell that was at least 100 degrees last month, the head of New York City’s jails system told lawmakers Thursday.
Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Mark Cranston, testifying before the City Council’s committee on fire and criminal justice, said outside consultants found that a gauge on the lower level, which was calling for the heat, failed to register the high temperature on the upper level.
Fan belts on the roof of the Rikers Island unit where 56-year-old former Marine Jerome Murdough was found dead were also “faulty,” Cranston said.
“My condolences go out to the Murdough family,” he said. “I think it’s a terrible situation and I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”
Cranston testified at a previously scheduled budget hearing where lawmakers pressed DOC officials about rising overtime costs, increasing levels of violence and a growing mentally ill inmate population that now comprises about 40 percent of the roughly 12,000 inmates who make up the nation’s second-largest jail system.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, the committee’s chair, cited the AP’s report on Murdough’s death, detailing how he was arrested Feb. 7 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing building and was sent to Rikers Island after being unable to make $2,500 bail.
“I don’t believe he should have ever wound up on Rikers Island,” she said of Murdough, who was discovered dead in the early hours of Feb. 15. “I think our city did a great disservice to him and I think our city does this to hundreds of people if not thousands.”
The correction officer assigned to patrol the unit where Murdough was housed — who was supposed to check on the inmates every half hour after they were locked in their cells at night — was suspended for 20 days and could face further punishment after the investigation is completed, Cranston said.
Murdough was left unchecked “no more than four hours,” he said.