Brazen Bull

by Kevin D. Williamson
They’re from the government, and they’re here to hurt.

New York City has roasted a man to death.

Jerome Murdough, like a very large share of New York City’s homeless, was mentally ill. According to his family, he suffered from both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, along with what his mother gently describes as “beer problems.” He was a former Marine who was in and out of homeless shelters, hospitals, and the occasional jail cell, with eleven misdemeanor convictions for trespassing, public drinking, drug possession, and the like.

During what was an unusually bitter winter in New York, Mr. Murdough sought shelter in an unsecured stairwell in a Harlem housing project. He was arrested for trespassing and transported to the infamous New York City lockup at Rikers Island. His bail was set, bizarrely, at $2,500, ensuring that he remained in place. Because of his mental problems, Mr. Murdough was to be kept under close supervision — he was to be checked every 15 minutes, in fact.

Rikers Island has many problems, from gang riots to widespread rape. There are plenty of criminals on both sides of the bars. It also has some more mundane problems, such as malfunctioning climate-control systems. Mr. Murdough was kept in a six-by-ten cinderblock cell, which effectively became a brick oven when the dysfunctional heating system caused the temperature in the cell to become, in the precisely chosen words of Mark Cranston, the acting commissioner of the city’s corrections department, “unusually high,” which is precisely what you’d have to be to imagine that those words provide an adequate description of the circumstances in question.

Mr. Murdough, trying to keep from freezing to death, was instead baked to death.

Those 15-minute checks never happened; he’d been dead for hours before he was discovered. It was days before Mr. Murdough’s public defender was notified of his death. His family was never notified of his death by the authorities — they learned about it when an Associated Press reporter called to ask about the case.

For the negligent homicide of Mr. Murdough, the corrections officer responsible for checking on his condition was given a 20-day suspension. When this produced a gale of criticism, it was extended to 30 days. Because the law is written in no small part for the benefit of those who enforce it, the officer cannot legally be suspended for a longer period. A mechanical-systems supervisor was transferred. The warden in charge has been transferred as well, and has received a ceremonial demotion. Rikers corrections officers are represented by a powerful union, and government employees are the nation’s most powerful special-interest group. How powerful? Two senior Rikers officers who were charged with a raft of felonies involving the abuse of an inmate during a training exercise, and who filed false reports to cover it up and suborned new recruits to file false reports to support their fiction, continued collecting six-figure compensation packages until the moment the judge’s gavel came down to punctuate the word “Guilty.”

Roasting criminals and others to death is a longstanding tradition, thought to have begun with the ritual sacrifices of children to Moloch in ancient Carthage. Perhaps the most famous execution device in this vein was the hollow bull designed by Perillos of Athens for the Sicilian tyrant Phalaris. It was designed with a series of trumpet-like pipes connecting the interior chamber to the mouth and nostrils of the beast; a fire was lit beneath the apparatus, and the screams of the victims inside were thought to confer a certain lifelike character on the structure. The poet Pindar uses the brass bull as a symbol of tyranny, and, perhaps inspired by him, the device turns up from time to time: Hadrian is reported to have martyred Saint Eustace in such a boviform furnace, and Alaric II was said to have burned a claimant to his throne in one.

Myths of this sort are none too subtle in their implications: Phalaris tested the brass bull on its inventor, and later was himself put to death in it by the tyrant who supplanted him. Arbitrary power is a terrible thing, and those who would use it to their own ends often end up being victims of their own device. This is a lesson that we as Americans — and we as a species — keep refusing to learn.

Mr. Murdough was not sacrificed to Moloch, but to Mammon. Our unionized public sector has vast resources at its disposal, and the principal purpose to which it puts them is its own enrichment and aggrandizement. This is not a case of a few bad apples; it is a fundamental characteristic of the system. The model of management at Rikers Island is by no means limited to jails — it is how we organize our schools, our trash-removal operations, and, in case you hadn’t heard, now our health care.

Rikers Island is an extreme example, but consider the rolling scandal of the United Kingdom’s nursing homes: Patients have been half starved to death, left with festering bedsores so deep that their bones were exposed, given drug overdoses, and more. For these services, the homes were collecting in some cases more than $5,000 a month per patient from the National Health Service, whose eagle-eyed auditors had given high marks to some of the worst ones in evaluations issued just before the scandals became public.

Mr. Murdough has more in common with those unfortunate British patients than with career criminals. He was a criminal only incidentally; like about 40 percent of New York City’s prisoners, his was a life shaped by mental illness and addiction rather than by a dedication to criminal pursuits. The United Kingdom and the United States both have vast, lavishly funded, extraordinarily powerful institutions that are in theory dedicated to the care of the indigent and the vulnerable. In practice, what the indigent and the vulnerable need is somebody to defend them from the institutions created to take care of them. Compare the treatment given Mr. Murdough to that given to the felonious jailers of Rikers Island: He was charged with trespassing and abandoned to death; they were charged with serious felonies involving the corruption of public institutions, and those same public institutions made sure that they were paid and insured to the very last second. In California, corrections officers charged with serious crimes maintain the contractual right to cash in accrued vacation time on their way out the door.

The worst of it is that the very people who failed in their responsibility to Mr. Murdough — which is also their responsibility to us, the people who pay them — will use this episode and others like it to demand more money, more resources, and more power, approximately none of which will be put to its putative purpose in anything approaching a responsible or effective manner. They talk a good game about looking after the least among us, but the evidence — the hard, empirical, bottom-line evidence — is that they are looking after themselves. They look out for the public in the same way that a rancher looks out for livestock: with an eye toward their own proprietary interests. It is not mere coincidence that many public schools and most public housing projects share a great many architectural features with penitentiaries — or industrial chicken farms. They are warehouses for populations that have to be managed and cared for to the precise extent that doing so serves the interests of their managers.

There are a thousand rationales for that: “Think of the children! Think of the homeless! Think of the elderly!”

Brazen. Bull.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.