Why the Justice Department Can’t Be Trusted to Investigate Abysmal Conditions in Federal Prisons
As a late-January polar vortex hit New York with frigid temperatures, the Metropolitan Detention Center, a waterfront federal prison, experienced an electrical fire, leaving incarcerated people inside without heat, light, warm food, or access to legal counsel for days. Following a furious response from protesters and legal advocates, public officials and a federal judge toured the facility, witnessing inhumane conditions far beyond the temporary and harrowing loss of heat and power.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department, which oversees all federal prisons and jails through the Bureau of Prisons, announced that it has asked an internal watchdog to investigate the Metropolitan Detention Center’s response to the electrical fire and heating failure, as well as broader infrastructural problems. That is to say: After the very public revelation of torturous neglect and brutality in New York City’s largest federal detention facility, the Justice Department is going to investigate itself.
To have faith that such an investigation will lead to significant change, one would have to believe that recent events and conditions at Metropolitan Detention Center are anomalous in the facility and the broader prison system. They are not.
Abuse, misconduct, and neglect have consistently been found to pervade federal prisons — and the entire carceral system — with internal investigations by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General often leading to little more than recommendations, window dressing reform, and the flimsy appearance of accountability.
“Department of Justice attorneys, who represent the Bureau of Prisons, cannot be trusted to provide accurate information about the conditions at MDC Brooklyn, or to investigate the Bureau of Prisons,” said New York-based civil rights lawyer Gideon Oliver, who assisted the legal counsel in hearings this week for two people incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center.
The proceedings, as Nick Pinto reported for The Intercept, uncovered that prison officials told numerous lies about the temperature and conditions in the facility — lies which their government attorneys repeated without hesitation. “Beyond the obvious conflict,” Oliver told The Intercept, “BOP attorneys, and the assistant U.S. attorneys representing the BOP, have undermined whatever credibility they might otherwise have enjoyed by providing defense attorneys and judges with misinformation about the recent conditions at MDC Brooklyn.”
It’s worth noting that it was not the Justice Department, but the tireless work of protesters, prisoners’ families, and lawyers that deserves credit for drawing necessary attention to last week’s freezing emergency. As a result, the power and heat are back on, and federal judges and lawmakers are — for a moment at least — paying attention to incarcerated people.
The Justice Department, on the other hand, has known about poor conditions at the detention facility and done little to resolve them. Indeed, there can be no pretense that the dire conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center, which holds 1,654 people, were previously unremarked upon.
A 2016 report by the National Association of Women Judges following visits to the jail described the conditions as “unconscionable.” Citing lack of light, air, medical services, and recreational space, the report claimed that the jail violated both the American Bar Association Standards on Treatment of Prisoners and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners.
In the last three years alone, three corrections officers — including two lieutenants — were convicted of raping women incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center. In the decade prior, guards at the facility were found to have beaten and violated the civil rights of Muslim people held in federal custody after post-9/11 arrest sweeps. Eleven guards, including a captain and three lieutenants, were indicted for brutal prisoner beatings between 2002 and 2007; four were sentenced in 2008 for the beatings and subsequent cover-up attempts.
There’s no evidence to put much stock in the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons radically improving conditions, of which they have long been well aware, without ongoing and intense public pressure.
“Without sustained community pressure, courts and politicians may be fooled by the partial clean-up of common areas and cages, but we know better,” the community activist group No New Jails NYC said in a statement. “This recent crisis at MDC has brought new attention to an old reality. What has taken place at MDC is not exceptional.”
Similar conditions to those reported at Metropolitan Detention Center — the cold, the dank, the dark, extreme isolation, untreated medical crises, ignored suicide attempts, neglect, and retaliation from guards — have been reported at various points in many of the U.S.’s 122 federal prisons. And New York’s federal facilities in particular have long been sites of abuse.
When the toilets broke in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, guards gave prisoners bags in which to defecate, according to 2015 lawsuit reviewed by Gothamist. In the lawsuit, a prisoner also stated that he had “found rats in his bed and seen rats crawling on inmates while they slept.” At the Metropolitan Correctional Center, numerous guards have been accused and convicted of sexually assaulting and beating prisoners over the last 15 years. Staff at the prison tried to cover up the 2017 fatal beating of 35-year-old Roberto Grant by telling his family that he overdosed; medical examiners found no drugs in his system.
When the elevators break — which happens at least once a month — at a high-rise federal facility in Houston, the whole prison is held on lockdown. During a record breaking heat wave in California last year, people incarcerated at the Mendota federal prison had to wrap their heads in wet towels when the air conditioning failed. Meanwhile, toxic mold — a problem at many detention facilities across the country — was found to have given staff and inmates respiratory diseases.
This is not to say that the the Justice Department’s investigations, conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, do not take note of problems found in Bureau of Prisons facilities. The ongoing barbarity at prisons like the Metropolitan Detention Center and Metropolitan Correctional Center, however, betrays how little interest there is in relieving incarcerated peoples’ suffering. If that suffering were taken seriously, the Justice Department and government officials would dedicate their energies to abolishing the cash bail system and other efforts toward abating America’s mass incarceration crisis.
Plans like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s — slowly shuttering Rikers Island prison, only to open four new state-of-the-art city jails in its place — are not the challenge to mass incarceration we need. Nicer prisons are no substitute for the goal of fewer prisons. Yet, as No New Jails NYC note in their statement, “even as we organize for abolition, we recognize the necessity and urgency of ensuring that currently incarcerated people have access to the resources they need to survive.” With that aim prioritized, the task of providing federal prisoners with livable conditions cannot be entrusted to the government body that has overseen and permitted the very brutality in need of urgent remedy.
“There is a great need for the court to appoint an independent special master, at a minimum,” Oliver, the civil rights lawyer, told me. A special master would be a third party, often a retired judge, appointed by the court, accountable only to the court and the parties involved. That we not leave a historically neglectful government agency to investigate itself, when the issue at hand is no less than torture, should indeed be the absolute minimum.
Natasha Lennard is a contributing writer at The Intercept. Her work covers politics and power and has appeared in Esquire, The Nation, and the New York Times opinion section. Her book "Violence," with Brad Evans, will be released this year.