To call what happened to Jerome Murdough in a Rikers Island prison cell a “wrongful death” is the sort of euphemism only criminal justice can conjure. In the words of an anonymous city official who spoke to the Associated Press, the mentally ill 56-year-old “basically baked to death” after an equipment malfunction caused the temperature of his cell to rise to at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and probably even higher. Murdough’s mother, Alma, is filing a wrongful death suit against the city for $25 million. But rather than a wrongful death, what happened was brutal state murder.
As the AP reported earlier this month, “Murdough’s internal body temperature, taken nearly four hours after he was discovered unresponsive and slumped at the edge of the foot of his bed with ‘a pool of vomit and blood on the floor,’ was 103 degrees.”
Murdough’s incarceration reflects the policing of minor offenses thathas been an essential NYPD practice ever since newly-reinstated police commissioner Bill Bratton first emphasized the zero tolerance “broken windows” theory as New York City’s top cop in the mid-1990s. It’s crucial to note that this approach fundamentally criminalizes poverty. Murdough, a homeless veteran, was arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing building.
For this non-violent infraction — the crime of homelessness — his bail was set at $2,500. Unable to make bail, Murdough was sent to Rikers and never came out. Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s law department, called Murdough’s case a “tragic incident” — and of course it’s tragic. But in his extreme and cruel death we see the intersection of a number of ills plaguing US “justice”: the ill-treatment of vets (according to the Jericho Project, a nonprofit that serves the homeless, veterans make up a quarter of the US homeless population); the criminalization of homelessness and poverty (under Bratton, police statistics have seen a spike in arrests for low-level violations in public-housing developments); and above all, the criminal justice system at its most inhumane.
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