NYC, state officials call for urgent action at ‘nightmare’ Brooklyn jail

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By Dan Sears

City and state officials are urging the federal government to improve conditions at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center after a federal judge wrote a scathing ruling earlier this month explaining why he refused to send a defendant there.

New York Southern District Judge Jesse Furman opted not to send Gustavo Chavez – a 70-year-old whose health conditions include an intellectual disability, sciatica and hypertension – to await sentencing at the Sunset Park center after Chavez was convicted of selling drugs containing fentanyl.

Furman’s 19-page ruling laid out the the jail’s “dreadful” conditions, including “near perpetual lockdowns,” delays in access to medical care and multiple suicides.

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes called on the Federal Bureau of Prisons to staff the facility properly and “make sure the conditions meet basic human rights.” Councilmember Alexa Avilés of Brooklyn said federal elected officials and the Bureau of Prisons must be held accountable for the ongoing “deplorable conditions.”

“That’s what makes the judge’s ruling really unique,” she said. “Finally, someone has said, ‘I’m not willing to send someone into these conditions.’”

Donald Murphy, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, responded to the ruling by saying the bureau is experiencing a staffing shortage. The salary for a federal correction officer in New York starts at just over $46,000, according to the bureau website. Murphy said the MDC is marked for “enhanced attention” to address the shortage, but added that the bureau needs more funding overall.

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“Receiving additional funding is vital to address immediate needs and to prevent conditions from worsening from their current state,” Murphy said.

The impenetrable concrete cube known as the MDC has housed well-known defendants such as R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein co-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell. Its current population is about 1,550, according to its website. Most detainees are awaiting trial, while others have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing.

In his ruling, Furman said New York federal court judges now routinely give defendants reduced sentences based on the conditions they’ve had to endure at the MDC.

“Prosecutors no longer even put up a fight, let alone dispute that the state of affairs is unacceptable,” he said.

Attorneys said the ruling was very significant, and that defense attorneys and judges are likely to use it to keep defendants out of the MDC or other local facilities with poor conditions.

“I think it could have a profound impact for a lot of defendants in the district,” said Federal Defenders attorney Andrew Dalack, who represents Chavez. “To be locked up at the MDC is just a complete nightmare.”

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The detention center has long been criticized for its conditions. In 2019, a polar vortex caused a weeklong power outage at the jail, leaving hundreds of detainees in freezing, dark cells with little to eat. The jail also has issues with mold, contaminated drinking water and vermin infestation, including roaches and flies, Furman wrote.

More recently, detainees were locked in their cells for 22 hours a day for about three weeks in December following an assault on staff, Furman wrote in the ruling. He also pointed to the “shocking” lack of medical care. Recently, the MDC repeatedly defied court orders to transfer a defendant with a staph infection to a medical facility. In another recent incident, the MDC ignored an order to get a defendant to a scheduled surgery for his cheek, which had been broken by another inmate at a previous facility. The man must now have his cheek rebroken before the surgery, Furman wrote.

Gounardes said MDC officials stopped holding quarterly meetings with local officials and other stakeholders about a year ago.

The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General said it last inspected the jail in 2019.

A spokesperson told Gothamist there are still four unresolved recommendations from that 2019 report related to heating, ventilation, and cooling and ensuring people who use breathing machines are safe in the event of a power outage. In 2021, the Department of Justice ordered the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan shuttered due to poor conditions after a single visit by the deputy attorney general, leaving the MDC as the only federal jail serving New York City. Rep. Dan Goldman, who represents Sunset Park, could not be reached for comment.

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