NEW YORK — The grisly deaths of two inmates — one who “baked to death” in his overheated cell, another who sexually mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven days — have raised new questions about the New York City jail system’s ability to deal with a burgeoning number of mentally ill people.
The two cases — both exposed by The Associated Press — have prompted a city lawmaker to schedule oversight hearings next month.
“No inmate should be treated that way, especially those with mental health needs. The city has to do more to protect them,” City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley said Thursday. “A lot of people who are in Rikers Island should be in a hospital, in a clinical setting, not in a jail.”
Bradley Ballard, a 39-year-old inmate who family members said had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, died in September after he was confined to his cell in a mental observation unit at Rikers for seven days for making a lewd gesture at a female guard, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP.
Denied some of his medication, the agitated inmate tied a rubber band tightly around his genitals. During that period, guards repeatedly peered through the window in his cell but didn’t venture inside until it was too late, according to corrections officials’ account.
Ballard was found naked and unresponsive on the floor, covered in feces, his genitals swollen and badly infected. He died at a hospital of what officials said appeared to be sepsis, an infection that has spread through the body.
In the other case, Jerome Murdough, 56, a former Marine who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, died in February after a heating system malfunction caused the temperature in his cell to rise to 101 degrees. He, too, was in a special unit for the mentally ill.
He was taking psychiatric medication that experts say can make people more sensitive to heat.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to reform the 12,000-inmate Rikers Island jail, amid criticism for months about violence and erratic behavior among inmates, mostly the mentally ill, who make up 40 percent of the population.
As a first step, de Blasio has appointed a corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who has a track record of reducing jail violence and the use of solitary confinement in Maine.
Also, mental health and jail officials have started shift-by-shift briefings on the most troubled inmates, and they are moving to make sure the officers who work with the mentally ill are steadily assigned to the task.
The Correction Department has also opened up two units where mentally ill inmates who have broken jailhouse rules get more intensive clinical attention, rather than being put in solitary confinement.
“I share Mayor de Blasio’s belief that we must do better by inmates who suffer from mental health issues,” Ponte said in a statement, “and by taking steps like improving coordination and information sharing between security staff and mental health staff, we will.”
Following Ballard’s death, Health Department officials said an investigation found workers missed multiple opportunities to treat him. The unit chief was transferred out, and staffers were retrained on how to do rounds.
Experts said some of these approaches don’t address the real problem.
“Correctional institutions are such a poor substitute for mental hospitals, which is what they’re basically functioning as in our society,” said Dr. Bandy Lee, a Yale psychiatrist who once worked at Rikers. “The problem is the correction setting is not fit to deliver the proper care, and in fact many of the settings exacerbate their symptoms.”
Nick Freudenberg, a professor of public health at City University of New York who ran programs at Rikers for 15 years, said the two graphic deaths highlighted various ways in which the city’s criminal justice system fails the seriously mentally ill: by not having special courts for them, by not training police well enough on how to deal with them, and by not having better communication between jail guards and mental health professionals.
“The one level is who did what on what particular day in this facility for this particular inmate who died,” he said. “Another level is the sorry state of mental health services in our society.”