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Malfunction, neglect found in Rikers inmate death

An exterior view of Rikers Island.

An exterior view of Rikers Island. Credit: AP

A malfunctioning damper and faulty rooftop fan belts sent temperatures up to at least 100 degrees in the Rikers Island jail cell where a mentally ill former Marine died in "unusually high" heat, the city's top jailer testified Thursday.

A jail guard who was supposed to be checking on the inmate, Jerome Murdough, neglected his duty and didn't look in for up to four hours, the city's acting Correction Department commissioner, Mark Cranston, told a City Council committee.

The guard was hit with an unpaid 20-day suspension -- under civil service rules, he could have faced 30 -- but more punishment is possible, Cranston said.

Murdough, 56, had been locked up on a low-level trespassing charge, unable to make the $2,500 bail set after cops arrested him for seeking warmth in a housing-project stairwell where he didn't belong.

Cranston blamed the high temperature in Murdough's cell, "a mental observation housing area," on the damper on a tier below his, as well as faulty fan belts on the jail roof.

Dampers regulate temperatures and help balance air supply. The damper regulating cellblock temperature was sending heat to Murdough's tier, according to Cranston.

In the aftermath of the death, officials took cell-by-cell temperature readings and scrutinized the heating equipment throughout the jail system, Cranston said.

"My condolences go out to the Murdough family. I think it's a terrible situation, and I can't imagine what they're going through. My heart goes out to them," Cranston said.

Murdough, a homeless Marine on antipsychotic and anti-seizure medicine, died in the early hours of Feb. 15. The cell had a vent but it's not been determined whether Murdough tried to open it.

The guard, who Cranston said remains on modified duty, has not been publicly named.

Elizabeth Crowley (D-Queens), the chairwoman of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, said she planned to hold an oversight hearing on how the jail system addresses mentally ill inmates such as Murdough.

"I think our city did a great disservice to him," Crowley said, "and I think our city does this to hundreds of people if not thousands."

About 40 percent of the 12,000 inmates in New York City's system are mentally ill.

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