The grisly deaths of two inmates — one who “baked to death” in his overheated cell, another who mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven days — have raised new questions about the New York City jail system’s ability to deal with a burgeoning number of mentally ill people.
The two cases have prompted a city lawmaker to schedule oversight hearings next month.
“No inmate should be treated that way, especially those with mental health needs. The city has to do more to protect them,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Queens) said Thursday. “A lot of people who are in Rikers Island should be in a hospital, in a clinical setting, not in a jail.”
Bradley Ballard, a 39-year-old inmate who family members said had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, died in September after he was confined to his cell in a mental observation unit at Rikers for seven days.
Denying him some of his medication, guards repeatedly peered through the window in his cell but didn’t venture inside until it was too late, according to corrections officials’ account.
In the other case, Jerome Murdough, 56, a former Marine who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, died in February after a heating system malfunction caused the temperature in his cell to rise to 101 degrees.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to reform the 12,000-inmate Rikers Island jail, amid criticism for months about violence and erratic behavior among inmates, mostly the mentally ill, who make up 40 percent of the population.
As a first step, de Blasio has appointed a corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who has a track record of reducing jail violence and the use of solitary confinement in Maine.
Also, mental health and jail officials have started shift-by-shift briefings on the most troubled inmates, and they are moving to make sure the officers who work with the mentally ill are steadily assigned to the task.
The Correction Department has also opened up two units where mentally ill inmates who have broken jailhouse rules get more intensive clinical attention, rather than being put in solitary confinement.
Following Ballard’s death, Health Department officials said an investigation found workers missed multiple opportunities to treat him. The unit chief was transferred out, and staffers were retrained on how to do rounds.