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Judges examine complaints from inmates at a troubled Brooklyn jail
February 6th, 2019
IT HAS been a particularly trying ten days for more than 1,000 inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Centre (MDC), a federal jail in the Sunset Park neighbourhood of Brooklyn. On January 27th an electrical fire knocked out power and melted the switch that moves the system to generator power. With temperatures outside falling, the heating system faltered, too, and the incarcerated men—most of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime—were left shivering in near-freezing conditions inside their darkened cells. Medical attention waned, as did access to hot food. Normal operations in the federal facility were suspended as well: visiting hours for family and lawyers were cancelled for six straight days, with only brief chats allowed on February 3rd.
On February 4th, the Federal Defenders of New York—a non-profit organisation of lawyers who represent indigent inmates charged with federal crimes—sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons and MDC’s warden, Herman Quay. The complaint, prepared by the firm of Kaplan, Hecker & Fink, warned of a “humanitarian crisis taking place at the main federal detention facility” in New York’s eastern district, a region that spans Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island and includes 8m people. In addition to “little or no heating, no or limited hot water, minimal access to electricity, and near total lack of access to certain medical services, telephones, televisions, computers, laundry or commissary”—as well as “noxious fumes”—inmates faced a “near-total cancellation of legal and family visiting”. This, the complaint alleged, was a violation of the inmates’ constitutional right to “assistance of counsel” under the Sixth Amendment.
More chaos ensued. On February 3rd, demonstrators say they were pepper-sprayed as they tried to force their way into the facility. The fumes evidently trailed back inside the building, causing lawyers who had finally gained access to their clients to begin coughing. “Legal visits were then abruptly cut short”, the complaint reads, “and the visiting attorneys were escorted out” of the jail. By the next morning, February 4th, power had been restored but a bomb threat at MDC scuttled visiting hours yet again.
Just as that most recent drama was unfolding at the facility, lawyers representing the public defenders against the Bureau of Prisons and the warden gathered for a hearing at a federal district court in Brooklyn. Hours later, Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall granted a temporary restraining order blocking the jail from cancelling normal visiting hours for the inmates’ attorneys. Judge Hall ordered that the lawyers’ visiting period—8am until 8pm, seven days a week—be restored immediately. Should MDC need to suspend these visits for more than two hours, she ruled, the Bureau of Prisons and warden would have to inform the court within two hours and explain the extenuating circumstances. The judge did not order the restoration of family visiting hours, as she could find no clear basis in law for such a right. But she did set a February 13th court date (before a different judge) for a fuller review of this and other plaintiffs’ claims. “If the conditions of confinement at MDC are as represented in plaintiff’s submissions”, she wrote, “there can be little question that such conditions are constitutionally intolerable”.
The federal government had argued that judges meddling with visiting hours would “impede the ability of the Bureau of Prisons to address potential security concerns” and “mire the court in the daily administration” of the jail. Judge Hall pushed back strongly against these contentions. Mandating visiting opportunities between lawyers and inmates planning a defence does not implicate the court in the “minutiae” of day-to-day administrative decisions, she explained; the judiciary’s big-picture aim is to vindicate the inmates’ fundamental constitutional rights. Federal courts are “not only authorised but obligated to ensure that individuals confined in our federal institutions are provided with access to attorneys”, she wrote, “as guaranteed by the constitution”. Nodding to the respective roles of the three branches of government, Judge Hall’s order included a rhetorical question on the necessity of judicial oversight: “If not the courts, then who?”
Other judges are keeping a close eye on the facility. Analisa Torres, a judge set to preside over the trial of one of the men detained at MDC, has instructed officials from the Bureau of Prisons to address MDC inmates’ complaints at a hearing in her Manhattan courtroom on February 5th. After the hearing, flanked by a federal defender and an investigator from Brooklyn’s US attorney’s office, she plans to take a field trip across the East River to see conditions in the jail for herself.
Read this at The Economist.