Congress Sounds Alarm as Prison Lockdown Stretches to Week 2

MANHATTAN (CN) — Inmates of the scandal-plagued Metropolitan Correctional Center can expect to go at least another week without hearing from their family or lawyers, officials said Thursday, as a lockdown of the federal prison drags on.

David Patton, the executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York, said the effect of the lockdown on the organization’s pro bono clients has been “horrendous.”

“They have been locked in cells (built for one person but which now hold two people) for 24/7,” Patton said in an email (parentheses in original). “It’s worse than solitary confinement. Little or no hot food. No recreation. Little to no showers. Poor to no medical care. And, of course, they have been entirely cut off from their lawyers and loved ones.”

The federal jail in New York City where wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein took his own life is on lockdown as authorities try to determine whether someone smuggled a gun inside one of the most secure federal jails in the country. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

Under the international spotlight since the August 2019 death there of high-profile pedophile Jeffrey Epstein — hanged in his cell in an apparent suicide — the MCC declared a lockdown on Feb. 27 after reportedly receiving an inmate tip that a gun had been smuggled into the facility.

It would be another five days before the New York Daily News broke the news that inmates were banned from outside contact during the lockdown.

Nestled between the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse in lower Manhattan, the MCC holds male and female prisoners of all security levels, most of whom have pending cases across the street.

Against the bleak picture emerging in the media, Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Nancy Ayers detailed some of the privileges that remain.

“With respect to the day-to-day operations of the facility, inmates in special housing have remained on a regular schedule for showers and all other inmates are on a periodic rotation schedule for showers,” Ayers said in an email. “The inmate population has been receiving hot meals regularly. All inmates have access to medical care and appointments and medical staff continue normal rounds on every floor.”

An end date for the lockdown is uncertain.

“It is expected that visitation from inmates’ families and friends may resume later next week, or as soon as possible,” Ayers said Thursday.

Capitol Hill has not taken the agency’s claims at face value.

“The only official reason given for the closure has been ‘security concerns,’” Representatives Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velázquez wrote in a Tuesday letter to BOP director Michael Carvajal and MCC warden Marti Licon-Vitale. “As we understand it, the closure came on the heels of days of extensive delays in legal visits in which lawyers had to wait for two to three hours to see their clients.”

Nadler and Velázquez related some of the reports they have received.

“They have no access to showers, are being fed only cold food, and inmates in one unit were reportedly pepper sprayed,” their letter states.

While acknowledging the need for security within the prison, the legislators expressed concerns about how the lockdown will affect federal cases and whether the inmates are getting medical attention.

“Although a very small number of inmates — up to five a day — have been transported by the U.S. marshals from MCC to the corresponding federal courthouse for legal visits, this has left the vast majority of the over 700 inmates at MCC without access to their attorneys or their families,” they wrote.

With the Epstein case serving as the latest and most notorious example, the MCC has a history of security blunders at odds with its fortress-like image.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman presided not just over Epstein’s abbreviated sex-trafficking prosecution, meanwhile, but a number of the prison’s other bloopers.

Reza Zarrab, a gold trader who implicated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a record-breaking money-laundering conspiracy, testified that somebody who wanted to prevent his testimony tried to assassinate him while the MCC had him in custody.

Cameron Douglas, the eldest son of “Basic Instinct” star Michael Douglas told Judge Berman eight years ago that he got his former lawyer, Jennifer Ridha, to smuggle him Xanax in her bra.

Other Southern District judges share similar stories.

In October, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III advanced a lawsuit accusing the prison of covering up the fatal beating of inmate Roberto Grant in 2015 by falsely classifying the case an overdose.

“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.”

Federal jurors in New York are currently deliberating over whether to convict former CIA engineer Joshua Adam Schulte of leaking an enormous trove of the agency’s electronic snooping tools to WikiLeaks.

One of the charges accuses Schulte of smuggling multiple contraband cellphones, including at least one heavily encrypted device, into his cell and reaching out to journalists.

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