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Death of Rikers Inmate Probed After Reports Say He "Baked" in Hot Cell

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City correction officials are investigating a death on Rikers Island last month where a homeless man died after the solitary confinement cell where he was held apparently had heat set to an extreme temperature, which has led some to criticize how mentally-ill people are held after they are arrested. NY1's Josh Robin filed the following report.

As she holds the picture of her son, all Alma Murdough can do is remember and ask why.

Her 56-year old son, Jerome, died alone in a cell at Rikers Island. Jail officials tell the Associated Press that the temperature was about 100 degrees. Side effects from Murdough's medications may have made it worse.

It all started in an East Harlem stairwell where Jerome Murdough was sleeping on the chilly night of February 7. Police arrested him for trespassing.

"That really killed me, that destroyed me, because I can't understand why she had to send him to jail, put him in jail," Alma Murdough said. "They got hospitals. They got all kinds of other things before jail. Why jail?"

It's a question that others are asking. Jerome Murdough was apparently one of many mentally ill people kept behind bars. According to one estimate, they account for 40 percent of all city inmates.

"We're using the criminal justice system as a way to treat the mentally ill," said D.J. Jaffe of the Mental Illness Policy Organization. "Rikers Island has five times as many mentally ill as there are in all state hospitals combined."

The city's new correction commissioner starts April 7. Joseph Ponte has talked about the dangers of solitary confinement.

"If we're truly trying to make people better, long-term, segregation is not the answer," he said on March 11. "But we still need to keep our places safe."

City Hall said that after Murdough's death, every cell in the area was checked. Several were found to be more than 80 degrees, and were fixed.

Mark Cranston, the acting commissioner, said, in part, "The safety of inmates and staff is our top priority, and the death of an inmate under our supervision is never acceptable. The department is conducting a full investigation of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Murdough's unfortunate death, including issues of staff performance and the adequacy of procedures."

Back in her Flushing home, Alma Murdough was left with questions that could be asked about more than just her son.

"I don't think that just because somebody's sleeping in a hall, that you put him in jail," she said.

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