Inmates Must Amend Suit Over Winter Power Outage

Cahana Yehudah, foreground, of the Bronx, cries as she hears the response of prisoners held inside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility with all security levels in Brooklyn, New York. The prison went without heat, hot water, electricity and good sanitation for several days, including during the recent frigid weather. Yehudah, who has a brother serving 18 months at the prison for gun possession, was one of many who gathered outside the complex on on Feb. 3, 2019, to draw attention to conditions. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Sidelining a lawsuit over a prison power outage said to have interfered in attorney-client communications, a federal judge faulted lawyers Friday for not naming any inmates as plaintiffs.

The Federal Defenders of New York brought the suit last month, claiming that their clients at the Metropolitan Detention Center had been unlawfully deprived of their right to counsel during and after a winter cold snap in New York City where a fire at the prison knocked out power, including heat.

Both attorney and social visits were temporarily suspended. Conditions in the prison are not a specific focus of the case, but lawyers and journalists also reported freezing cells and no water or lights.

Ruling from the bench Friday after a nearly 90-minute hearing, U.S. District Judge Margo Brodie noted that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel “is a right of the accused, and of the accused only.”

“The Sixth Amendment right is too personal,” she added later, meaning such a suit could only be brought by the inmates themselves.

That’s what’s likely to happen next. Brodie granted the Federal Defenders time to file an amended complaint, which the group said it could turn around by next Friday, March 8.

Outside the courtroom after the oral arguments, Deirdre von Dornum, attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders for the Eastern District of New York, said the group intends to “amend with inmate plaintiffs.” 

“We have them ready to go,” she said. “We just didn’t want to put them [the inmates] under additional stress” by automatically including them in the lawsuit from the get-go.

Calling it “complicated” for inmates to act as civil plaintiffs, von Dornum explained that it makes inmates “averse to the U.S. government in a second way,” putting them at risk of solitary confinement or other retaliation.

“We’ll have to name people who are still in the prison, and that’s a lot to ask of them,” she said.

In his argument to allow the Federal Defenders to file suit alone, Joshua Matz of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP said the group falls within the “zone of interest” protected by law. 

“The violation of [inmates’] rights harms our organization,” Matz said. Later, he added, “We are being injured. No one disputes that our organization is suffering harm here.”

Brodie remained skeptical.

“Who has the right to counsel?” she asked. “Not the attorneys.”

Brodie also declined to extend the temporary restraining order issued by her colleague, U.S. District Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall, on Feb. 4 to ensure that inmates could visit with their attorneys, a step welcomed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth D. Eichenholtz. That restraining order is set to expire today.

“The plaintiffs and defendants are aligned in that interest of keeping attorney visits open,” Eichenholtz said. He admitted there had been some trust lost between the inmates and prison officials, but said that having open lines of communication with lawyers after the restraining order expired would “help restore some of that trust.”

Brodie made clear to the Federal Defenders, however, she was available 24 hours a day if attorney visits were interrupted again, and would “happily sign” another temporary restraining order.

Von Dornum also told media members afterward she had heard reports from three different units within the prison that the heat in the prison is out again and that cold air is blowing out of the vents, both problems during the original power outage. New York City has been cold this week, with temperatures in the mid-20s to low 30s.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York declined to comment. 

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