NYC warden reassigned in inmate’s death in hot cell
NEW YORK — The warden of the 2,100-inmate New York City jail where a homeless, mentally ill veteran “baked to death” in an overheated cell in February has been demoted and transferred to another unit that doesn’t house mentally ill inmates.
Rose Argo, the warden of the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island, didn’t appear to be directly involved or negligent in the death of 56-year-old former Marine Jerome Murdough, but Department of Correction officials said in a statement Thursday that “it does appear that staff did not follow basic procedures.”
An internal investigation also found “overall issues” with the heating system in the jail, the statement said, and the mechanics supervisor there was transferred to a unit that works on projects where no inmates are housed.
An already-suspended correction officer on post when Murdough died also has been suspended another 10 days without pay, amounting to 30 total days, the maximum allowed under city law, the officials said.
“The department is taking steps to address the breakdown of inadequate procedures, staff performance, and maintenance, to ensure that tragedies such as this never happen again,” the statement said.
Argo didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday. Prosecutors in the Bronx are also reviewing the case.
Murdough was arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge Feb. 7 after police found him sleeping in the stairwell of a public housing building. He couldn’t make bail and was sent to Rikers. He was found dead Feb. 15 in his cell that four officials told The Associated Press was at least 100 degrees.
Murdough’s family said he suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and he was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, the officials said. One of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss specifics of the case, said Murdough “basically baked to death.”
More tests are needed to determine exactly how he died, the medical examiner’s office said. But the officials said preliminary findings point to extreme dehydration.
Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Mark Cranston has said a malfunctioning damper diverted heat to the top level of the two-tier unit where Murdough was housed and a gauge failed to register the high temperatures.
Reached by phone Thursday, Murdough’s sister, Cheryl Warner, said the disciplinary actions weren’t satisfying.
“I believe some people should be fired and not just demoted or suspended,” she said.
Advocates for mentally ill inmates have said Murdough’s death represents the failure of the city’s justice system to adequately respond to this population.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has appointed the head of Maine’s state corrections system, Joseph Ponte, to be the city’s next commissioner, touting his reputation for making corrections systems better. Ponte is credited for reducing by two thirds the number of inmates in solitary confinement in Maine. He starts his New York job Monday, but may face tough opposition.
At a Thursday press conference, Norman Seabrook, president of the powerful 9,000-member correction officers’ union, lambasted Ponte and said a non-New Yorker wasn’t equipped to handle the challenges of the city’s jails. Flanked by graphic blown-out photographs of slashing victims from inside city jails, Seabrook said: “We need leadership, we don’t need a reformer.”
In a statement, Ponte said he looked forward to discussing Seabrook’s concerns.