Mayor Vows Jail Reforms on Rikers Island

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday called the death of a mentally ill veteran in an overheated cell on Rikers Island “shocking and troubling” and vowed to make reforms to the city’s sprawling jail complex, where violence has surged in recent years.

The inmate, Jerome Murdough, 56, a homeless former Marine who was arrested on trespassing charges, was found dead in his cell on Feb. 15. The cause of his death is still under investigation, though officials have said that temperatures in his cell were “unusually high.”

“My heart goes out to his family,” Mr. de Blasio said in response to a question at a news conference.” We’ve lost someone who served his country. And we don’t know all the facts yet. There’s a full investigation going on, but obviously, the allegations that we’ve heard so far are troubling.”

Mr. de Blasio has appointed Joseph Ponte, a veteran corrections official from Maine, to spearhead reforms on Rikers Island, one of the nation’s largest jail complexes. Mr. Ponte, who most recently led the Department of Corrections in Maine, has impressed penal reform advocates with his efforts to rein in aggressive disciplinary measures and decrease the use of solitary confinement as punishment.

Mr. Ponte “is someone who has taken on very troubled situations in jails systems and prisons systems previously, and had tremendous success,” Mr. de Blasio said on Thursday. Mr. Ponte will take over as New York’s correction commissioner on April 7.

The night he died, Mr. Murdough complained to a correction officer about feeling overheated, but the inmate was ignored, said Norman Seabrook, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, who has been briefed on the case. Mr. Murdough was left unattended in his cell for hours while a correction officer who was supposed to be monitoring the inmate sat in a chair for most of her shift, Mr. Seabrook said.

Mr. Murdough was arrested Feb. 7 after he was found by a police officer in the stairwell of a New York City Housing Authority building in East Harlem.

He was charged with trespassing in the second degree, a misdemeanor.

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