Warden demoted after inmate baked to death

Last updated 11:45 04/04/2014

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The warden of the 2100-inmate New York City jail where a 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 prisoners.

Rose Argo, the warden in command 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 has 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, the maximum amount 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.

Prosecutors in the Bronx are also reviewing the case.

Testifying before a city council hearing last month, Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Mark Cranston said a malfunctioning damper diverted heat to the top level of the two-tier observation unit where Murdough was housed and that a gauge on the lower level, which was calling for the heat, failed to register the high temperature on the upper level.

Officials told The Associated Press that Murdough, whose family said suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was found dead in a cell that was overheated to at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit (nearly 38 degrees Celsius). One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because that person was not authorised to discuss specifics of the case, said Murdough "basically baked to death".

Murdough, who was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, was found dead early on February 15, four city officials told the AP. More tests are needed to determine exactly how he died, the medical examiner's office said. But the officials, all with detailed knowledge of the case, said preliminary findings point to extreme dehydration.

He was not checked on for at least four hours and didn't open a small vent-like window in his cell to let in cool air, Cranston testified.

Murdough was arrested on a misdemeanour trespassing charge on the night of February 14 after police found him sleeping in the stairwell of a public housing building and was sent to Rikers Island after being unable to post US$2500 (NZ$2927) bail, according to court records.

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Murdough was a private first class in the Marine Corps who served from 1975 to 1978 as a field artillery batteryman.

- AP

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