56-year-old veteran Jerome Murdough was arrested for sleeping in the stairwell of a Harlem public housing project on a cold winter night. Murdough, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was charged with trespassing and held on a $2500 bail. Eight days later he was dead of hyperthermia, after the jail’s malfunctioning heating system pumped the temperature in his cell up to 101. A spokesperson for the medical examiner’s office said an antipsychotic medication he was taking contributed to his death.
Murdough’s tragic death exposes some of the most glaring deficiencies in our healthcare and criminal justice systems. Insufficient public mental health resources led to his arrest. He stayed in jail because he could not afford $2500 bail. He died because of poor conditions in the jail, the guard’s negligence in failing to monitor people as assigned, and his health needs.
When we talk about stopping the flow of people into the criminal justice system, that includes people with mental health needs. Right now, ten times as many of these individuals are in U.S. prisons and jails than in state psychiatric hospitals. As many as one in five people in jail have a mental illness; the rate is even higher among women.
New York City paid Murdough’s family $2.25 million for his death, which could have been avoided had they not tried to collect $2500 from him for his freedom. Adding mental health resources—whether it is the ability to refer people to social services or adding mental health professionals to patrols—makes more sense economically, let alone from a humanitarian perspective. It reduces police contact with so-called “frequent flyers,” saving patrol manpower hours. These programs have also been shown to reduce future harmful behaviors two years later, leading to lower taxpayer costs.
The next step is showing that the political will exists to change our current system of dealing with people with mental illnesses, and that there is no appetite for warehousing people in jails because of their disorders. The Stepping Up Initiative is a national effort to divert people with mental illness from jails and into treatment, and May 16 is Stepping Up Day of Action. The Day of Action toolkit includes advice on how to host a day of action, social media strategies, and ways to encourage community engagement, as well as an elected official’s guide to talking about jails and people with mental illness. Show your support, and together, let’s create a new vision of what justice means for all people in America.