The Metropolitan Correctional Center is no stranger to controversy. After a recent lawsuit over conditions that resulted in several COVID-19 outbreaks, the federal jail has yet to implement changes to make the facility genuinely safer, according to inmates and staff, who fear their health remains at risk.
When MCC was sued by inmates in June, over conditions they alleged placed them in undue danger of contracting COVID-19, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos concluded that MCC had “failed to implement common-sense measures” to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Yet, Ramos stopped short of imposing a preliminary injunction on MCC Warden Martha Licon-Vitale, which would have forced Vitale to take concrete, court-mandated steps to improve conditions at MCC. Instead, the court ordered Vitale to submit twice-weekly coronavirus updates with no set requirements or deadlines. But sources close to the facility say that no new substantive coronavirus measures have been implemented.
A fundamental lack of liability lies at the heart of the issue, said local defense attorney Bruce Barket. “There aren’t really any consequences for them,” said Barket.
Fellow defense attorney Kenneth Montgomery agreed. “Federal judges are involved, but that’s like asking the police to police themselves. That’s never a good idea. There’s a ton of lawsuits that have been filed, but direct legal consequences? There would be none.”
Physicians at the start of the pandemic expressed their concerns about coronavirus outbreaks in correctional facilities. Correctional medical expert Brie Williams said, in a March press conference, that the “accelerated transmission and poor health outcomes of patients with COVID-19 in prisons and jails is extraordinarily high.”
As of September 10, 36 of MCC’s 600-plus inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, according to an update Warden Vitale sent to the courts. However, court documents and sworn inmate declarations state that many inmates presented flu-like symptoms in mid-March but only received testing days or sometimes weeks after they first became symptomatic.
The June lawsuit exposed dire conditions at MCC. According to court documents, a May 13 inspection by epidemiologist Dr. Homer Venters concluded that MCC had “inadequate sick-call systems, deficient COVID-19 screening and contact tracing, inadequate access to soap and cleaning supplies, and deficient isolation and quarantine procedures.”
“The place is still filthy,” said Barket. “One client told me that he’s had the same mask for a month and he finally threw it away because it was in tatters.”
Conditions inside MCC were corroborated by former inmate Thomas Bell, 40, who was released on August 20, after serving a little under a year at MCC as part of a five-year sentence for possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jean-David Barnea, who represents MCC, told the New York Law Journal in May that the MCC population had been “sub-divided into cohorts of no more than ten inmates” to limit the spread of COVID-19. Yet, Bell said he lived in a 26-man dorm with beds less than 3 feet apart. Bell added that inmates were given disposable masks in late March, and later received two cloth masks. But the cloth masks—sewn by federal prisoners— were shoddily made, hard to breathe in, and weren’t long enough to attach to the ears, he said.
Inside MCC, current prisoners express frustration and fear. “There are still no real preventative measures for COVID-19,” said one inmate, who asked for anonymity in fear of retaliation by correctional officers. “We finally got new masks last week, for the first time in over a month…they told us to wash them because they’re the last ones we’re getting.” But with limited amounts of soap, it’s hard to keep masks clean, he said, adding that the washing machine in his unit has been broken for a month. “They have no idea how to handle this other than to lock us down. The medical staff has no idea what to do. If you end up testing positive, they just put you in isolation until you test negative or die.”
Susan D’Alessandro, the mother of a 33-year-old man incarcerated at MCC, said that inmates were recently given 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner bottles to use as soap. “And that was right at the same time that they had no clean clothes,” said D’Alessandro.
Meanwhile, even though 47 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 as of September 10, MCC still does not test its workers, said Tyrone Covington, president of the Council of Prisons Local 3148, a union for corrections employees.
“Staff have to find their own way to get tested… on their day off or if they utilize leave,” he said. “And there’s no contact tracing for staff. There are times when the agency doesn’t even know their employee has tested positive… the system at MCC is just broken.”
Warden Vitale noted the jail’s failure to “consistently perform” contact tracing for staff in a May letter to Judge Ramos, saying that “such investigations are now occurring.” Yet, in the September 10 update on MCC’s COVID-19 response, no such measures were recorded.
An MCC public information officer declined to comment on the reported lack of sanitary supplies and testing of staff.
“When you look at the constant positive cases in the inmate population, it’s clear the BOP measures are not working,” said Covington. The bottom line, he said, is that the continued “inaction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons” in facilities like MCC, could lead to another outbreak in the city, he said.
(Featured photo by Jim Henderson)