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Death in hot prison cell highlights national issue

Published May 17, 2014 4:14 pm

Prisons • Former Marine "basically baked to death" in a New York cell.
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New York • The case of a mentally ill homeless veteran who died in a 100-degree Rikers Island jail cell starkly illustrates the dangers of extreme heat in lockups, an issue facing prisons across the nation as the inmate population gets older and more heavily medicated — and more at risk of overheating.

Inmate advocates point out that many prisoners exposed to high temperatures are unable to cool themselves — by taking a cold shower or by sitting in an air-conditioned room — in a way people living outside prison walls regularly do.

"This is not an issue of comfort and luxury," said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's National Prison Project, who has litigated cases in Wisconsin and Arizona to provide appropriate cooling for inmates.

"Prisons have an obligation, which no one disputes, to provide conditions that, while they don't have to be comfortable, they can't be deadly," Fathi said. "But because of climate change, because of the changing population, heat is a deadly risk for many prisons and jails throughout the United States."

The February death of 56-year-old former Marine Jerome Murdough is a jarring lesson in what can happen when cells overheat, even though it differed from the classic inmate heat death in some significant ways: It happened in the winter and was due to malfunctioning heating equipment rather than scorching outside temperatures.

Officials haven't said exactly how Murdough died. A preliminary city Department of Correction probe found the medical examiner investigator believed he died of hyperthermia, noting that "the heat in his cell caused his body to shut down," according to court documents. One official who spoke on condition of anonymity described Murdough as having "basically baked to death."

Heatstroke causes a person's body temperature to increase rapidly — up to 106 degrees within 10 or 15 minutes — and can be fatal if not quickly treated. Other heat-related illnesses — heat exhaustion, rashes, fainting — are most likely to affect elderly and overweight people. Others particularly at risk include people with heart disease and asthma or those, like Murdough, who are taking psychotropic drugs.

Psychotropic medications can impair the body's ability to cool itself by sweating, experts say. That's a particular concern as the number of mentally ill inmates who take such drugs has risen steadily. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2005, the most recent year available, more than half of all jail and state prison inmates had a mental health problem.

Nationally, the bureau doesn't track heat-related deaths in jails and prisons. But they do occur.

A report issued last month by the University of Texas School of Law's Human Rights Clinic found that at least 14 inmates have died from exposure to extreme heat since 2007 in state correctional facilities. And a federal judge ruled in April that a special monitor will be appointed to make sure the heat index doesn't top 88 degrees for death-row inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

The courts have likewise ruled that Arizona prisoners on psychotropic medication must be housed in a unit where the temperature is maintained at 85 degrees or below.