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Manhattan jail closure renews concerns over Brooklyn facility conditions

An expected influx of 200 detainees from the Metropolitan Correctional Center complicates ongoing efforts to improve conditions at a federal detention facility in Brooklyn.

BROOKLYN (CN) — The judge overseeing a mediation over conditions at a Brooklyn jail said the parties must work quickly to adjust to the news that the facility will absorb hundreds of detainees as early as October, when the Manhattan detention center where Jeffrey Epstein died is scheduled to close.  

Chief U.S. District Judge Margo K. Brodie in Brooklyn said she learned Thursday morning that the Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to close the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan in order to improve conditions at the aging facility. The development was first reported by the New York Daily News

After the Bureau of Prisons “assessed steps necessary to improve conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center,” the Department of Justice “has decided to close the MCC, at least temporarily, until those issues have been resolved,” a spokesperson from the DOJ said in a statement. “Planning for the deactivation is under way, and we will have more updates as that process continues.”

The Manhattan center’s conditions gained national attention two years ago when billionaire Epstein was found dead in his cell as he awaited trial for child sex trafficking charges. Reports of vermin like roaches and rats, filthy showers, spilling raw sewage, and poor temperature control had plagued the jail for years before that. 

The majority of the 200-plus detainees at the Manhattan facility are expected to be moved to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, even as the outer borough facility grapples with its own safety and health issues. 

It was in 2019 that an electrical fire caused the Brooklyn facility to lose power, leaving detainees without lights or heat for days in the dead of winter, as a polar vortex swept the American east. 

Following the power outage, the Federal Defenders of New York filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York, accusing the Bureau of Prison of “false statements and stonewalling.”

“BOP officials were largely non-responsive,” the 11-page complaint reads. “They refused to provide detailed or accurate information about the conditions at MDC or the reasons that legal visitations were cancelled.”

After the Second Circuit reversed the suit’s dismissal and remanded it to the district court, former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, now a partner at the firm Paul, Weiss, was appointed to mediate the matter. 

During a remote status conference on Friday, Lynch said her team has been conducting “stress tests” at the facility to better understand how to ease issues like delayed scheduling of in-person visits. She said the parties should anticipate that moving inmates to the Brooklyn facility will pose new challenges. 

“This will, of course, create its own ‘stress test,’ separate and apart from the ones that we have been using,” she said.

Lynch called the Manhattan jail closure “very much new news,” and said she “learned of it when everyone else did yesterday afternoon.” 

“This is very, very much a work in progress,” Lynch said, noting that a planned call with the warden of the MDC next week will go over issues concerning the ongoing mediation. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth D. Eichenholtz, representing the Bureau of Prisons, acknowledged that the transfer will “bring a host of issues” needing to be worked out in mediation. Staff in Brooklyn were installing additional video and phone units “as we speak," he said. 

“It was one of the first things I learned about in my office,” Eichenholtz said, “when this information trickled down to me.”

“What I don't have today, unfortunately, is much detail beyond that,” he said 

Attorney Jenna Dabbs of the firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink represents the Federal Defenders of New York, and said she was surprised to hear that the other parties didn’t have a heads up.

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“I can’t imagine, judge, that it’s new information to the [Bureau of Prisons], which is a party to this litigation,” Dabbs said, calling it “disappointing” that the news was revealed through the press to some parties in the mediation. (Judge Brodie said she learned about the closure by phone. “Not that I’m defending this in any way,” she clarified.)

The Metropolitan Detention Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)

The transfer will pose issues for staffing, and call into question the adequacy of phone and video conferencing equipment in Brooklyn, which have already been complicated systems to roll out and maintain. 

“A lot of us have seen clients gradually transferred out of MCC in recent weeks,” Dabbs said, “though I don't think anyone had an appreciation for the news that came out yesterday.” 

Deirdre von Dornum, attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders for the Eastern District of New York, noted that transferring some 200 detainees by early October would be an issue. 

“My primary concern is the timeline as I understand it,” von Dornum said during the conference. 

She expressed concern that the Brooklyn center will be able to provide adequate computers for discovery — currently, “most don’t work” — as well as law library access and facilities for detainees who are under special housing conditions.

Further complicating the issue is the surging delta variant of the coronavirus: Detainees in Brooklyn are now confined to their cells except for one hour per day. 

“If we have 200 people in five weeks, given that we were already not in a great place, that would be really, really concerning,” von Dornum said. 

Brodie said the issues raised “are all valid and necessary to any transfer, and we have to figure that out before these inmates can be transferred. We can’t wait until they’re at the MDC to scramble and figure out how to provide those services.” 

“With all of us working collectively, I have no doubt that we can figure out a way to make sure the concerns are all addressed before this transfer actually happens, even though we have very limited time,” the judge said. “These are things that just have to be done.” 

Civil rights attorney Andrew Laufer said the conditions in Brooklyn are unlikely to provide any relief to those being transferred from Manhattan.  

“It’s nearly as bad, if not just as bad, as MCC,” Laufer said in a phone interview.  “I don’t really know what favors they’re doing to detainees by bringing them there.” 

If Epstein’s death brought to light the conditions at the Manhattan jail, it was too late for many who died before him, said Laufer. Issues have surrounded the facility “since its inception” in the mid-1970s, he said. 

He represents the family of Roberto Grant, who died in the MCC in 2015, in a federal lawsuit against the jail. An autopsy initially listed Grant’s cause of death as “undetermined,” but medical experts have called it a homicide, according to reports from Gothamist

“I wish this much attention was paid when he was murdered,” Laufer said of Grant, but he “didn’t have all this clout and influence with these power brokers in our society, so obviously no one really cared too much about his death.” 

Laufer said the MCC is not only short-staffed, but does not follow its own basic guidelines for patrolling the area. The facility’s closure was a surprise, he said: “BOP is very opaque. You never know what’s going on there. It’s almost like there’s no oversight.” 

The lack of transparency is despite “thousands of complaints” regarding prison conditions, he said. 

“If you were in a rental apartment, you’d get free rent for your life if you had to live within these types of conditions,” Laufer said. “You don't give up your basic human rights when you’re serving time. Clearly those rights were repeatedly violated.” 

Attorney Amy Marion represents three individuals who were detained in Brooklyn when the power went out, and recently sued in the United States over the “near freezing” conditions. 

With no lights, the men were “locked in their cells all day and all night, with the sole exception of a minimal break to take a cold shower, if they chose to subject themselves to this,” according to the 11-page complaint. 

Building maintenance has been the Bureau of Prisons’ explanation of the conditions — but really, they speak to a larger issue, said Marion, of the Lake Success-based firm Abrams, Fensterman. 

“It’s systematic of a broader issue of not properly maintaining your facility,” Marion said. She recalled visiting a client in the facility during the summer, when the air conditioning was improperly regulated, making it “freezing.”  

“You needed a winter jacket,” she said. “These guys are walking around in short-sleeved jumpsuits.” 

Marion said there may be more physical space in Brooklyn compared to the shuttering Manhattan facility. But she doubted detainees would get any real relief from the transfer. 

“I don’t think it’s going to be any better,” she said. “It’s a larger space, there is more physical room there, but I don’t know that that makes any difference in terms of the inmate population or anything else.” 

Follow Nina Pullano on Twitter

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