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Official Questioned by City Council About Death of Rikers Inmate

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A top city official was hammered with tough questions Thursday in the wake of a death of a mentally ill inmate on Rikers Island, as City Council members want to know why the prisoner was essentially baked to death in his cell. NY1's Courtney Gross filed the following report.

Mark Cranston, the city's acting correction commissioner, apologized publicly to Jerome Murdough's family at a City Council hearing Thursday.

"Any death in our custody is a tragedy," Cranston said.

Murdough died in his jail cell on Rikers Island in the middle of winter. His cell was about 100 degrees.

"There was a unusually high temperature reading," Cranston said.

The death was the centerpiece of a Council hearing on Thursday, where the department's acting commissioner was forced to explain the circumstances.

"When the assessment of the heating system was done, there was some things found," Cranston said. "The damper on the lower level was malfunctioned, and it was calling for heat on the lower level, which would bring the heat up to the top tier."

Murdough was in a mental observation unit on the top floor. He was supposed to be checked in on every 15 minutes. The acting commissioner said he was not checked in on for at least four hours.

The correction officer on duty at the time was suspended. She is now on modified duty.

Outside of the hearing, Cranston declined to give the press more details.

"The initial assessment is there were some malfunctions and some issues, and like I said, I can't comment until I have a full investigation so I can speak factually about it," he said.

Moments later, he left City Hall.

Murdough's story becomes part of a larger challenge for the department. He is part of a skyrocketing population of mentally ill at Rikers, a population now at 38 percent.

As the population changed, violence started to rise. It continues to climb. The use of force by correction officers is on the same trajectory.

After the acting commissioner's quick exit, council members and advocates told NY1 they are hopeful that the department can turn things around, especially with the new commissioner starting next month.

"I hope that he will have a comprehensive approach to this," said Jennifer Parish of the Urban Justice Center.

"No, I'm not satisfied, but I understand that we're in a temporary state," said City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley of Queens.

The new commissioner, Joseph Ponte, takes over on April 7.

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