US government shutdown causing turmoil at high-security federal jail in Manhattan

The jail, known as the Metropolitan Correctional Centre or MCC, is one of the most important detention centres in the federal prison system.
The jail, known as the Metropolitan Correctional Centre or MCC, is one of the most important detention centres in the federal prison system.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The government shutdown is causing turmoil at the high-security federal jail in Manhattan, where some prisoners went on a hunger strike on Monday (Jan 14) after family visits were cancelled for a second week because of staffing shortages, defence lawyers said.

The jail, known as the Metropolitan Correctional Centre or MCC, is one of the most important detention centres in the federal prison system, housing about 800 detainees.

At times, the inmates have included accused terrorists, prominent white-collar criminals and organised crime figures such as the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo. Still, the majority are anonymous defendants awaiting trial in obscure cases.

"They have already refused a meal - I believe they refused breakfast and lunch," said Ms Sarah Baumgartel, a federal public defender, who said she learnt of the hunger strike from a detained prisoner whom she represents.

"My client is in the unit, he's participating," she added. She declined to identify the client, out of concern he would be singled out.

The shutdown has also affected the dispensing of medication to some prisoners in the jail.

Last week, a prosecutor said at a federal court hearing in Manhattan that his office had been informed that because of the shutdown, there are issues with prescribing medication.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment about the conditions at the MCC.

Beyond prisoners' social visits, the shutdown is affecting how criminal justice is administered in the federal courts in New York. For instance, lawyers have been turned away from visiting their clients at a federal jail in Brooklyn.

On Monday, a Bureau of Prisons lawyer, Mr Adam Johnson, e-mailed defence lawyers to say that "due to staff shortages", lawyers would not be able to visit their clients at Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Centre, which holds about 1,600 detainees.

 
 
 

"We regret the inconvenience and will notify you immediately once visiting resumes," Mr Johnson wrote.

Indeed, on seven days this month, attorney visits at the Brooklyn jail either have been cancelled entirely or for several hours, according to e-mail messages sent by the Federal Defenders of New York to chief judges of the United States district courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Mr David Patton, head of the federal defender office, writing to Ms Colleen McMahon, chief judge of the federal court in Manhattan, said that as a result of the restrictions, his office was looking into potential legal remedies, including the possibility of making new bail requests for inmates. The office represents thousands of indigent defendants.

"We're not talking about fancy luxury items here," Mr Patton said in a telephone interview. "We're talking about being able to converse with your attorney when you haven't been convicted of a crime. We're talking about being able to see your children or your spouse or your parents."

Mr Edward Friedland, a spokesman for the Manhattan federal court, said: "The court is obviously concerned with the impact that the shutdown is having on defence counsels' ability to see their clients."

He added that the court intends to follow up with the wardens in both institutions.

Details about the hunger strike at the MCC were scarce. Ms Baumgartel, the federal public defender, said the protest may have been limited to one unit in the jail. She said her client told her he wanted to participate in the strike "because of the importance of everyone having their visits".

Ms Serene Gregg of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 200 correctional workers and other staffers at the MCC, said the shutdown had inflamed problems at an already severely short-staffed jail. Recreation time has been curbed or cancelled and inmates' access to doctors and other medical care has curtailed, she added.

Asked about prisoners refusing to eat, she said: "There has been some pushback from inmates in terms of eating the meals provided. The tensions in the building are very, very high."