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April 25, 2019

Judge tours NYC jail after hearing allegations that officials lied about freezing conditions, ignored inmates’ medical needs

February 6, 2019
Protesters at the Federal Metropolitan Detention Center at 90 29th Street in Brooklyn. (Theodore Parisienne for New York Daily News)

Government jail brass lied about freezing conditions and the loss of electricity in the Metropolitan Detention Center, according to witnesses who took the stand in federal court Tuesday.

Warden Herman Quay and Bureau of Prisons attorney Nicole McFarland were singled out in testimony as ignoring inmates’ urgent medical needs and misleading attorneys and officials about conditions after a Jan. 27 electrical fire knocked out lights in parts of the jail, which houses 1,600 people.

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“Nicole McFarland represented that medical care continued without problem. I spoke to clients with open wounds,” Deirdre von Dornum, the attorney-in-charge of Brooklyn Federal Defenders, said during the hearing in Manhattan Federal Court.

Von Dornum described McFarland standing beside her “indifferently” as she heard the pleas of an inmate suffering from Colitis, bleeding on his bedsheets.

Quay told a senior court official that the heat was working, but von Dornum said she saw frost on jail windows around that same time.

“I have personal knowledge that what the warden said was false,” she said.

BOP officials said heat and electricity were restored on Sunday.

Judge Analisa Torres
Judge Analisa Torres (Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.)

Von Dornum was one of 11 witnesses who testified in a four-hour hearing called by Judge Analisa Torres.

An inmate, Donnell Murray, described the crippling anxiety of being unable to reach his attorney because phones were disabled and visits were cut off during the outage. A correction officer took the temperature in his cell and it read around 30 to 40 degrees, he said.

Miguel Cruz, who is no longer at MDC, said the hardest part was being stuck in his cell in pitch-black dark with another inmate.

“It was always dark, we only got one window in there,” he said.

“It’s horrible. I don’t like it. Nobody else would. You’re in a cell with another person. Anything could happen.”

City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who toured the jail on Saturday, described a shocking lack of urgency among administrators.

“There was no plan. There was no plan to create a plan,” he said.

“People seemed to be annoyed we cared about the prisoners.”

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John Ross, an investigator with the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s Office, said he visited the jail on Friday and was most concerned about the lack of medical care.

“The temperature, for the most part, I would say was fine,” Ross said.

After the hearing concluded, Torres left to tour the jail with federal defenders and attorneys from the Bureau of Prisons. State Attorney General Letitia James, who was in the courtroom, said she was also going along.

The judge was clearly troubled by the accounts from inside of the jail, as well as the allegations of efforts to minimize the crisis. Von Dornum suggested Torres consider appointing a neutral “receiver” to monitor MDC and force it to disclose more information.

“To me the biggest problem is a lack of transparency,” she said.

“For them to say ‘everything is fine’ made it very difficult.”

While trying to get information from MDC’s legal bureau, Von Dornum recalled being told “I wouldn’t trust an inmate over a lawyer.”

“That turned out not to be a reasonable assumption,” she said.

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