- The Justice Department is closing a beleaguered jail in Manhattan and sending inmates to Brooklyn.
- The Brooklyn jail, which holds Ghislaine Maxwell and R. Kelly, has its own history of scandal.
- Maxwell’s lawyers say the toilets are broken and water is undrinkable; and a 2019 blackout left people to fend for themselves in freezing temperatures.
In August, the Department of Justice announced it would close down the MCC, its federal jail in Manhattan.
The facility had been plagued by years of scandal, the most high-profile blunder being the suicide of accused pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein in 2019.
But across the East River, Epstein’s former girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell has been faring in poor conditions of her own.
Maxwell is staying in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, also known as the MDC. In numerous legal filings submitted to the court ever since her arrest on sex-trafficking charges in July 2020, Maxwell’s lawyers have complained she is underfed, “sustaining hair loss,” given meals with microwaved plastic melted onto the food, that drinking water was in fact “not drinkable,” is “in de facto solitary confinement,” gets her mail months late, isn’t given the resources to review evidence in advance of her criminal trial, and is living in a cell filled with the stench of overflowing toilets a floor above.
“The MDC — especially the East Building where Ms. Maxwell is held — is permeated with mold and vermin,” her attorney Bobbi C. Sternheim wrote in one letter to the judge overseeing the case. “Cockroaches and rodents are plentiful and glue tracks have been placed in Ms. Maxwell’s day area to help remediate the problem.”
The Brooklyn jail has similar problems to the shuttered Manhattan jail, attorneys say
Maxwell is far from the only high-profile defendant to spend time in the MDC. Federal marshals shuttle R. Kelly between the jail and the federal courthouse in Brooklyn every day for his ongoing sex-crimes trial. It has also served as a home, if temporarily, for Tekashi 6ix9ine, Martin Shkreli, Keith Raniere, and Michael Cohen.
The MDC, in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, has absorbed around 100 people from Manhattan’s MCC, according to the New York Daily News, and holds around 1,600 people overall. The facility holds mostly pretrial detainees, who are presumed innocent under the law. Defense attorneys say it nonetheless routinely flouts civil liberties, including preventing access to quality and timely medical care.
“It’s not any better,” civil rights attorney Andrew Laufer told Insider. “They both have very similar habitability problems. Heating and cooling are very poor, sanitary conditions, infestation of insects, sewage — you name it. It’s just a mess.”
For years, the jails have been plagued with personnel problems. In August, a warden at the MDC shot and killed her husband, according to police. In May, the MCC guards who were supposed to monitor Epstein the night he killed himself admitted to faking records about their duties. Day-to-day problems have worsened in the coronavirus pandemic. Lawyers often have to wait hours to see their clients, and guards frequently flout safety guidelines by failing to properly wear masks, according to status updates filed as part of a federal lawsuit into the jail conditions.
Laufer told Insider the Department of Justice, which runs the Bureau of Prisons, has too few resources and little interest in improving conditions at federal jails. Congressional oversight, too, is lacking, he said.
“There’s a lack of supervision, which allows prisoners to attack other prisoners regularly, rampant drug use and contraband that’s smuggled in,” he said. “There’s also abuse by corrections officers against prisoners themselves. These officers are just undisciplined.”
US District Judge Colleen McMahon criticized the conditions at the MDC at a sentencing hearing in April, bemoaning the conditions as “disgusting.”
“The single thing in the five years that I was chief judge of this court that made me the craziest was my complete and utter inability to do anything meaningful about the conditions at the MCC, especially at the MCC and the MDC, [which] are run by morons,” McMahon said, adding: “There is no continuity, there is no leadership, there is no ability to get anything done. They lurch from crisis to crisis, from the gun smuggling to Jeffrey Epstein.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not answer Insider’s questions about conditions at the MDC.
“The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that every facility in the federal prison system is not only safe and secure, but also provides people in custody with the resources and programs they need to make a successful return to society after they have served their time,” the spokesperson said.
A blackout in 2019 brought attention to the jail’s conditions
Problems at the MDC gained national attention in January 2019, when a weeklong blackout amid a polar vortex left incarcerated people stuck in their cells in single-digit temperatures. The people had little light, were unable to receive their medication, couldn’t talk to their lawyers or family members, and couldn’t even file administrative complaints, according to a Justice Department Inspector General report and a lawsuit filed on behalf of defendants. Members of the jail staff, the report said, were indifferent.
The Federal Defenders of New York, a group of defense attorneys that fight against mass incarceration, sued the Bureau of Prisons in May of 2019, demanding it admit to civil liberties violations and asking a judge to order reform at the facility. In 2020, former US Attorney General Loretta Lynch was appointed to mediate the lawsuit.
The closure of the Manhattan MCC and transfer of people to the Brooklyn facility may just make things worse, according to Jenna Dabbs, an attorney at Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, who is representing the Federal Defenders of New York in its lawsuit.
“Without thoughtful advance planning, this transition will unquestionably jeopardize the constitutional rights, including access to legal counsel, of those whose lives have been entrusted to these facilities,” she told Insider
The Inspector General report, authored in May 2019, found the jail’s leaders had ignored urgent HVAC issues for years and failed to communicate with the public about how conditions had changed. It remained buried until February of 2021, when the Justice Department released it in answer to a series of FOIA requests from American Oversight, an independent watchdog group.
The report recommended nine improvements the MDC could make to prevent similar issues in the future. But critics say the suggestions are too limited in scope, and there is little evidence they have been made anyway. The Bureau of Prison has since promoted the MDC’s head warden at the time, Herman Quay, who now oversees three federal jails in Pennsylvania.
“I have no confidence that anything has changed at MDC,” Deirdre von Dornum, an attorney for the Federal Defenders of New York, told The Intercept. “If there were a blackout during the current heat wave, I think it is likely we would see an exact repeat of these horrible conditions.”
Dmitriy Shakhnevich, a defense attorney and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Insider the problems at the MCC and MDC were inherent in the jail system. It’s not uncommon, he said, for him to sue jails in order to get access to his incarcerated clients, or ensure they get proper medical care. Underlying issues like understaffing “by and large repeat themselves prison to prison,” he said.
If anything, he said, the Manhattan and Brooklyn jails had a big advantage over other jails: They were easier to access. Jails like Rikers Island, in remote locations, made it harder for defense attorneys like him to have a window into how their clients are living.
“They’re in the city, so you could always stop by it in between court appearances or after court appearances,” he said. “When I go to Rikers Island or upstate, it’s very hard to allocate a day, if not more, to prepare and go out there and then actually deal with them.”