Heating in Prisons

Published: May 3, 2016 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: Troubled Heating Systems

rikers+hot+cell+death

I had gotten back from a road trip and was going over some old issues of Newsday when I spotted his obituary. It sent me spinning back a bunch of years and the memories had me smiling.

            John Broderick lived in Hicksville, the town where I grew up, but he got there by way of Duagh, in County Kerry. He spoke English like a gentleman, but the Irish lay thick across each of his words. He was 78 when he passed and I'm sorry that we had lost touch.  

            John called me one day a long time ago and asked if I would look at a couple of problems he was having with the heating system in the place where he worked, that being the Queens House of Detention. And since I had never been in prison, I smiled and said sure.

            Obviously, there's a lot of security involved in a site visit such as this one, and there was also a large and very interested captive audience following my every move as we went from cell to cell, checking the temperature at the radiators. The guards moved the inmates out of our way as we explored. And it was the usual suspects causing the problems - trapped air and insufficient flow, too much steam, or not enough steam, failed steam traps. But each of these hydronic suspects hid within industrial-strength boxes that contained the hot metal, all of which made my visit even more intriguing because we needed special keys I had never seen before. John had those.

            He next asked me to visit the Bronx House of Detention, which used to loom tough-guy large a few blocks south of the old Yankee Stadium. This was at a time in New York when it was safer inside that jail than it was on the streets around it. The same heating culprits at the Queens House were also doing time in the Bronx. I roamed, watched, learned and helped where I could.

            Next up, Riker's Island. This is the Big League of NYC jails, and it was a bit tougher to get into. I wore a tie and a jacket, like a lawyer, and I had to leave my briefcase and my books with the guard (what was I thinking?). We were inside one of the cells and fiddling with the radiator when the inmate who lived there whispered, "Hey, you da hacksaw salesman? I sure do hope so!"

            John and I smiled and went about our business. Afterward, I asked him if he knew what the guy was in for. "I can't say for certain, Danny," John said. "But I don't tink it's for talking in church." 

            Ah, the Irish.

            While we were heading to another area, I met a guy pushing a heavy cart loaded with tools and lock parts. He was the locksmith of Riker's Island. I asked him how many locks there were on the island and he told me without hesitating. It was as though he had just finished counting them. I don't recall the exact number, but it was somewhere between an awful lot and a ridiculous amount, and he took care of them all. How's that for a job?

            Years later, I was with a bunch of friends at Eastern State Penitentiary, which is now a Philadelphia museum, but once housed others who were not there for talking in church. This is one of the spookiest buildings in America and it was never about rehabilitation; it was about doing penance. They heated it with steam and that, of course, was what most interested me and my friends on the tour.  For me, the pipes, and the pipe radiators, were far more fascinating than Al Capone's old cell, as fancy as it was. And from what I saw, I don't think he lacked for heat.

            I was looking at a product from a company in the U.K. called Solray. The British Ministry of Justice tasked them with coming up with a radiator that would work with hot water, give out lots of low-temperature radiant warmth, and be tough enough to serve in mental institutions and prisons. They came up with a broad, steel panel that won't win any beauty contests but it passed all the government's tests. On their website, they have a video of this big guy swinging a length of pipe. He's wearing a jump suit and you can't see his face, but when he goes to work on the radiator he looks like the offspring of a marriage between Mike Tyson and Ted Williams. The radiator took his best (I cringed) and then seemed to smirk. That all you got? Bring on the captive audience.

            Jerome Murdough died when he was 56 years old. He was a U.S. Marine. A week before his death in the brutally cold New York City month of February, 2014, he had been sleeping in the stairwell of a public-housing project in Harlem. He told the police officer he was just trying to keep warm. Mr. Murdough suffered from mental illness and had been in and out of shelters and on the streets of New York for years. His elderly mother had offered to take him in but he refused. The police officer charged him with misdemeanor trespass and the City sent him to Riker's Island because he couldn't post 10 percent of the $2,500 bail. They locked him in a cell reserved for the mentally ill. The heating system was running out of control in that part of the prison, and even though the prisoners had complained repeatedly about the temperature, which was more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, no one did anything to fix it. And the prisoners were a captive audience to that lack of preventive maintenance.

            The cause of Mr. Murdough's death was hyperthermia. The medical examiner explained that people who take anti-psychotic drugs for schizoaffective disorder are especially susceptible to high ambient temperatures. You take those drugs and get overheated, you die.

            I thought of John Broderick, whom I hadn't seen in 25 years. He was long retired and he would die in September, 2014, which meant he had probably seen the newspaper stories about Jerome Murdough, U.S. Marine. I'll bet he would have done something about that excessive temperature. I'll bet he's shaking his big Irish fists from Heaven right now.

            Mr. Murdough, United States Marine, damaged by life, wasn't talking in church. He was just trying to stay warm on a brutally cold night, so he wound up in an oven of a jail cell, which makes the cause of his death seem even more ironic.

            A month after John Broderick died, New York City settled with Mr. Murdough's mother for $2.25 million. Reports say that public pressure was responsible for such a swift settlement. The taxpayers will write that check. You think they could have fixed the heating for less?

            No one answered the cries of the captive audience as they suffered. The guards watched. The heating is broken. You're prisoners. Tough.

            It brought Saint Matthew's words to my mind. "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me."

            Rest in peace, Marine. I'm sorry that we weren't there for you. You were certainly there for us. Thank you for your service.