Case Against Security-Addled NY Prison Gets Lift-Off

This photo shows the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York on July 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Shadowed by scandal after the apparent suicide of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, the Metropolitan Correctional Center faces a fresh round of scrutiny from a Friday court ruling on an unsolved inmate beating death.

“Recently, the death of a high-profile defendant reinvigorated public scrutiny about MCC,” U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III noted in a 16-page opinion, alluding to Epstein’s death there in August.

More than four years before Epstein’s demise drew national headlines, however, there was the little-noticed case of Roberto Grant, who was found dead at the age of 35 in his MCC cell on May 19, 2015.

“The unexplained circumstances surrounding Mr. Grant’s death raise troubling questions about the BOP’s oversight of individuals remanded to its custody,” Pauley wrote. “Mr. Grant’s relatives — and the public — have an interest in learning what happened.”

The Law Office of Andrew C. Laufer provided this undated photo of Roberto Grant, who was beaten to death on May 19, 2015, while incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Facility. Grant was 35.

Shortly before his death, Grant told his ex-wife, Nicole Morrison, and mother, Crecita Williams, that a prison guard there harassed and threatened him. Correctional officer Lee Pourde initially told the family that Grant died of a drug overdose, a theory that became unsustainable after an autopsy found he died of blunt force trauma to his head, neck and torso.

A toxicology report did not detect drugs or alcohol.

Judge Pauley wrote Friday without qualification: “Roberto Grant was beaten to death in an MCC dormitory.”

The judge made the same pronouncement from the bench during a hearing this past June.

“I read the autopsy report,” Pauley told the government’s attorneys at the time. “He was beaten to death in a dormitory that people are supposed to be supervising, right?”

The Southern District of New York, representing the federal government, declined to comment.

The family’s attorney Andrew Laufer noted back then that Grant’s death would not have been sudden.

“How long does it take to murder a 35-year-old man, a healthy 35-year-old man, a strong 35-year-old man?” Laufer asked the judge in June.

The attorney continued to question why prison officials still have not found Grant’s killer after more than four years.

“My clients want to know who murdered their son, and the father of their children,” Laufer told Courthouse News in a phone interview. “Hopefully, we’ll get some of those answers, and hopefully be compensated for their loss.”

Grant’s family accused the guard of a “cover-up,” an allegation that the judge threw out as unsupported.

The guard’s initial account of Grant’s death may have been contradicted by the forensic evidence, but in order for a constitutional claim to survive, the judge added: “That is not enough.”

As the Grant case moves into discovery, Laufer vowed to continue probing the issue.

“As far as we are concerned this is an ongoing investigation and search for justice for the death of Roberto Grant,” the attorney added.

Moving the family’s negligence claims forward, Judge Pauley wrote, was not a close call.

“Contrary to the government’s assertion, this is not a case involving an ‘unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation,” the opinion states. “Rather, this tragedy had to stem from a cascade of failures and seems like a case where the matter speaks for itself.”

Despite its frequent depiction as a fortress that kept a hold on Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — the drug lord who famously broke out twice from maximum-security prisons in Mexico — MCC has a long history of security lapses. Inside the MCC, sex and bribery scandals abound, as do ubiquitous reports of smuggled cellphones, one of which purportedly allowed former CIA engineer Joshua Adam Schulte to leak classified data from prison.

The Department of Justice replaced MCC’s warden and put two sleeping guards on leave amid its investigation into Epstein’s death, where reports indicated that there was no surveillance video and allegedly falsified log entries on the night of the convicted pedophile’s death.

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