Mother Files $25 Million Lawsuit after Mentally Ill Son Dies in Custody at Rikers Island

Alma Murdough, whose 56-year-old mentally ill son died while in custody at Rikers Island, filed a $25 million lawsuit in April 2014 against New York City. The suit claims that employees at Rikers Island were careless and negligent after they failed to check up on Murdough’s son, whose cell reached a temperature of 101 degrees. According to the lawsuit, 56-year old Jerome Murdough, an ex-Marine who suffered from mental illness and substance abuse issues, was homeless and was trying to escape the cold weather when he attempted to sleep in a stairwell in a Harlem building on February 7, 2014. Police arrested Murdough for trespassing, and when he could not post his $2,500 bail, he was transferred to Rikers Island.

While detained at the facility, Murdough was confined to a call that had a faulty ventilation system. On February 15, 2014, employees found Murdough dead in his cell, and there was a “pool of vomit and blood on the floor.” The temperature of the cell was 101 degrees; four hours after his death, Murdough’s body temperature was 103 degrees. The medical examiner’s office ruled the cause of his death to be hyperthermia. An investigation into the matter revealed that Murdough went unattended for hours at a time. New York City’s Correction Department acknowledged that the death was indicative of “systemic management problems” at the facility. As a result of the ex-Marine’s death, one corrections officer was suspended for 30 days without pay, and the warden in charge of the unit where Murdough was housed was demoted. The District Attorney in the Bronx is launching an investigation into the matter.

Murdough isn’t the first mentally ill inmate to die at Rikers Island. In September 2013, Bradley Ballard, 39, a prisoner suffering from mental illness, was found unconscious in his cell; his naked body was covered with feces. According to an investigation into Ballard’s death, corrections officers refused to give Ballard his psychiatric medication and ignored his pleas for help. The inmate caused his toilet to overflow and wrapped a rubber band around his genitals, which became infected. While in his cell, mental health workers only spoke to him for 15 seconds through a small glass window in the steel door. Medical examiners stated that Ballard died of sepsis. Department of Health investigators concluded that Rikers’ employees missed multiple opportunities to help the mentally ill man.

The two deaths highlight Rikers Island’s inability to meet the needs of a growing mentally ill population. There are currently 12,000 inmates at the facility. Forty percent, or 4,800, of the prisoners are mentally ill. Nearly 1,580 inmates are diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Many of the corrections officers are not adequately trained to deal with mentally ill inmates. According to a union spokesperson for the corrections officers, the employees must complete a 16 week course before working in a prison. However, only 21.5 hours of class time are devoted to dealing with the mentally ill. Dr. Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist at Yale University, said that she is not surprised by the treatment of the mentally ill prisoners. She stated, “Correctional institutions are such a poor substitute for mental hospitals, which is what they’re basically functioning as in our society. The problem is the correction setting is not fit to deliver the proper care, and in fact many of the settings exacerbate their symptoms.”

Inmate Died After 7 Days in Rikers Island Cell: AP, NBC News, Jake Pearson, May 22, 2014
Mom to file $25M lawsuit after son ‘baked to death’ at Rikers, NY Post, May 16, 2014
Warden at Rikers Island Demoted After Inmate Dies in Overheated Cell, NY Times, Michael Schwirtz, April 3, 2014

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