Half a block behind Manhattan’s federal courthouse, two blocks from City Hall, three blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge, and less than a mile from the hustle-and-bustle of Wall Street, sits a detention center that has been condemned by a United Nations human rights expert for exposing its inmates to conditions akin to torture.
While reports of the horrendous conditions on Rikers Island helped spur Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to shutter the jail’s violence-plagued facilities, far less attention has been paid to the environment inside the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the federal jail which mainly holds people who have been charged but not yet convicted of crimes, who in the eyes of the law are still presumed innocent.
Yet those locked up at the MCC are subject to their own indignities and rights violations, say those who have spent time there on both sides of the bars. These include filthy conditions, vermin infestations, substandard medical care, and violence and abuse at the hands of guards. Interviews with a dozen people who have spent time locked up there as recently as 2017, as well as with attorneys who have represented clients at MCC, human rights groups, and others with direct knowledge of the prison, confirm that those incarcerated at MCC often endure a rat-infested, high-rise hell just yards from the federal courts that send them there.
“I thought there was nowhere worse than Rikers Island,” Melvin Rodriguez, who spent three weeks at MCC, told Gothamist. In October 2016, Rodriguez was arrested in the Bronx on federal charges for selling drugs to a confidential informant, as part of the largest gang raid in New York City history.
Rodriguez said the bug and rodent infestation at MCC was particularly horrifying. “The cells [are] very small and at nighttime you hear the mouses, see waterbugs in the shower,” he told Gothamist. At least one former MCC prisoner said the mice would find their way into commissary boxes, and gnaw away at their food.
“You asked about the conditions,” wrote Ricardo Stewart, another young man indicted as part of the Bronx gang raid. “We saw rats so big it seemed like they could only be in the sewer.”
“But they wasn't in the streets or the sewers,” Stewart added. “They were more like roommates.”
In a special jail-within-a-jail called 10 South, alleged terrorists, mobsters and drug kingpins are subject to some of the most brutal conditions of solitary confinement in the nation. This extreme isolation, reserved for those charged with the most heinous crimes, was described as “a punitive measure that is unworthy of the United States as a civilized democracy,” according to a former special monitor on torture and punishment for the United Nations who investigated the case of one prisoner held there for three years.
Hundreds of people indicted in the Southern District of New York, as well as many individuals indicted in the Eastern District, based in Brooklyn’s federal court across the river, end up at the jail awaiting trial for federal offenses including drug-related crimes, fraud, bribery, and sex offenses. Defendants facing terrorism charges have spent more than three years at the facility, attorneys say. But even those facing less high-profile charges generally spend at least one or two years there before their criminal cases are resolved.
(Madeleine Crenshaw / Gothamist)
The MCC is one of two federal pretrial facilities in New York City; Metropolitan Detention Center, located on the waterfront in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is the other.
They are part of a network of eleven such facilities run by the federal Board of Prisons, with nine spread across the continental U.S. and two others in Honolulu and Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Many others awaiting trial on federal charges are detained in local jails.
This past February, a British appeals court blocked the extradition of alleged hacker Lauri Love to the United States, where he would have most likely been held at either MCC or the federal jail in Brooklyn, the Metropolitan Detention Center.
The court determined that Love, who has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and depression, would be at high risk of suicide if he were extradited, in part because of the poor mental health care available at the facilities. MDC and MCC share a single psychiatrist and each have only a handful of psychologists on staff, according to court documents, raising questions about whether the two facilities could adequately treat the nearly 500 inmates suffering from significant psychiatric illnesses.
New York attorney Joshua Dratel, who has represented clients at the notorious U.S. facility at Guantanamo, says in some regards, MCC—particularly 10 South — is worse. Dratel said he has represented nearly a dozen people who have served time on 10 South, and countless others in MCC. He describes the prison as “soul-negating.”
“It’s physically, mentally, psychologically, emotionally—as unaccommodating to the idea of being human as any place I’ve been,” Dratel told Gothamist.
Because MCC is a federal prison, the accountability mechanisms that have helped bring change to Rikers and, to a lesser degree, to New York’s state prisons, cannot be applied. Conditions at MCC may only worsen in the age of Trump and Sessions, who have vowed to step up federal prosecutions while signaling their disdain for the rights of individuals in custody.
Jeanne Theoharis is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College who has written extensively about conditions at MCC.
“If I described these conditions to you—filthy, freezing, no natural light, isolation so extreme that you’re punished for speaking through the walls, absurd rules like prisoners not getting to see the newspapers unless they’re 30 days old, secrecy so deep that people are force-fed and lawyers can be punished for describing the conditions their clients are experiencing—you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was Iran or Russia,” she said.
“But in fact this gulag exists right here in lower Manhattan.”
Activists outside MCC in 2014 during a vigil organized by the No Separate Justice campaign. (Courtesy Tom Martinez)
When MCC first opened in 1975 as part of the broader renovation of New York’s downtown civic center institutions, the move was praised as an important step towards prison reform. “[T]he new Metropolitan Correctional Center at Foley Square will bring to New York City its first piece of advanced - and humane - prison design” hailed The New York Times in an article published just before the facility’s completion.
The cells were designed to be single occupancy, with a total rated capacity for the facility of 474 inmates. But today the prison population at MCC is almost double that number—just shy of 800. Although the vast majority of individuals held at the facility are men, a few dozen women are also detained there.
On residential floors, the north and south wings each contain six groups of eight rooms, arranged in a two-tiers clustered around what the Times story termed “a double‐height lounge space” designed to allow prisoners a sense of privacy while ensuring they could be observed from the common space.
But the “lounge” hardly resembles a college dorm suite, and by all accounts the overcrowding at MCC leaves little room for comfort. In the dormitory units on the 11th floor, dozens of men are expected to share one toilet, one sink, and one shower. According to one 2015 pro se lawsuit against the BOP filed by a prisoner named Levit Fernandini, when the toilets broke down men were given bags to defecate in, which were then not removed from the unit. Some men used the shower as a toilet.
In his lawsuit, Fernandini describes the presence of rat and mice droppings throughout the floor, and states that he has “found rats in his bed and seen rats crawling on inmates while they slept.” When he was bitten by a rodent in January 2014, “the counselor for the unit was far from surprised, if anything in light of the infestation, the only surprise is that not every inmate is bitten," he wrote. Fernandini maintains that medical staff ignored his requests for treatment for several days, even after the bite became infected.
Medical care at MCC was also condemned by former prisoners and defense attorneys. “Unless it’s life or death there’s no immediate medical care,” prisoner Marlon Roberts wrote Gothamist in a letter. “[I]t can take 2 months to answer your sick call request.”
Andrew Laufer, a civil rights attorney who has filed several lawsuits challenging conditions at the BOP’s two federal jails in New York City, recalled suing the BOP on behalf of a prisoner at MCC who had had his fingertip chopped off by a cell door. Rather than being placed in an ambulance, alleges Laufer, the man was chained at his ankles and wrists and brought to the hospital by correctional officers, bleeding profusely.
"I think it’s a human rights violation,” Laufer says of the medical care at MCC. “I think it’s an Eighth Amendment violation—deliberate indifference.”
There are also claims of extreme brutality by those who are held at the MCC. In September of 2017, Laufer filed a lawsuit alleging that after 35-year-old Roberto Grant was beaten to death at MCC in May 2015, the prison staff tried to cover it up, by telling his Grant’s family he’d died of an overdose.
Gothamist reviewed a copy of the autopsy performed on Grant by the New York City Medical Examiner, which stated the father of two had suffered “blunt force injuries of the head, neck, torso, and extremities” and had no detectable traces of drugs in his system.
“You have someone who’s beaten to death in MCC, and there are cameras everywhere,” Laufer said. “There’s not an inch of that facility that is not surveilled. No one cares.”
The case is ongoing, and Laufer recently lost a motion to compel the government to release documents and other materials relevant to Grant’s death. In court filings, the Department of Justice has denied wrongdoing.
The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to written inquiries about this incident or other allegations laid out in this story. A spokesperson for the BOP also declined to comment.
Several prisoners told Gothamist that they had been physically assaulted by staff. “I ended up catching a new charge in MCC for defending myself,” said Fabian Morrison in a letter. “A crazy officer… attacked me and I defended myself, I’m the seventh inmate he put hands on. He is really fucked up in the head from the military.”
In the past fifteen years, at least one correctional officer at MCC has been convicted of beating an inmate, and at least three guards have been found guilty of sexually assaulting prisoners. In 2016, a former correctional officer at MCC was sentenced to seven years behind bars for raping a woman detained at the facility. “Even in my dreams, I am suffering flashbacks where I’m repeatedly raped,” the woman told the court. And this past April, a guard was arrested for taking bribes to smuggle food, alcohol and cellphones into the facility.
When individuals held by the Bureau of Prisons are charged with disciplinary offenses, they wait in what is called the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU) for a Disciplinary Hearing Officer (DHO) to review the allegations. That process can take weeks, sometimes months, explained Sarah Kunstler, a New York City-based civil rights and criminal defense attorney who has extensive experience working with clients locked up at MCC. Prisoners don’t get credit for that time towards their eventual punishment, creating a substantial incentive for them to just accept the charge.
Moreover, at the hearing, the DHO is often evaluating the prisoner’s word against that of the officer, so challenging the allegations can feel pointless. "There's an impunity that the officers [at MCC] have to enforce discipline without any recourse, which allows a kind of arbitrary scheme,” said Kunstler. “There's no test of the allegations, ever."
While the BOP does release broad statistics documenting violent incidents across the federal prison system, it does not publicly release data on how rates of violence vary in individual facilities. However, a September 2012 Government Accountability Office report on overcrowding in federal prisons noted that “more inmates are sharing cells and other living units, which brings together for longer periods of time inmates with a higher risk of violence and more potential victims.”
Sally Butler, another attorney who has represented individuals locked up at MCC, says she encourages her clients do whatever they can to stay out of the crosshairs of correctional officers. “If the officer says jump, you jump,” she said.
Butler noted that in state court, it makes no difference if a prisoner is charged with disciplinary infractions pretrial. But those tickets can make a huge difference as to what facility federal prisoners are sent to post-conviction.
The recreation yard at MCC is on the roof, and prisoners told Gothamist they are brought up for a brief period of exercise about once every three days. The rest of the time they’re locked up in their units with little to do and no access to fresh air or sunlight.
Meanwhile, for prisoners held on 10 South, recreation is taken in what essentially amounts to a double cell, with a narrow, barred window, which looks out onto the street and lets in just a tiny bit of fresh air. They are never let outside.
(Madeleine Crenshaw / Gothamist)
In January 2017, after escaping from two Mexican high-security prisons, alleged Mexican drug kingpin “El Chapo,” whose legal name is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, was extradited to the US to face charges as the head of the Sinaloa cartel, and locked up in 10 South.
After months, Guzmán’s sanity started to unravel, according to legal motions filed by his attorneys over the spring and fall of 2017. Auditory hallucinations, depression, paranoia, the inability to remember people, places and events, the client “repeating himself often and sometimes forgetting what the discussion is about,” were the symptoms described by his attorneys in a letter submitted to federal judge Brian Cogan in October 2017. “It is plain to the defense team that something is not right with Mr. Guzman.”
But Guzman is just one of the most recent arrivals there. For the last two decades, Muslim men facing terrorism charges have been held on the unit for up to four years before the resolution of their criminal case.
Wali Khan Amin Shah said that he was moved onto 10 South right after it was built, in February 1997. The year prior, he and two codefendants were convicted of conspiring to simultaneously blow up about a dozen planes over the Pacific. Shah was held in 10 South until September 1998, when he was transferred to a different part of the facility.
“I been around in this world, almost a decade in a war zone…seen my part of torture and bad prisons, I was in jungles and deserts,” Shah wrote in an email from a federal prison in Indiana. “But the time I spent in 10 South took a large chunk of my soul, it is a very bleak place by design."
The lights in 10 South are left on 24 hours per day, according to several former residents. There is a window flap in each cell door, which only the guards can open. The cells are about 17 feet by 8 feet, with two cameras fixed on each cell at every moment. Defense attorneys said there were only about six or seven cells on the unit.
Ali Yasin Ahmed was transferred to MCC in September 2014, and spent about a year there while he faced charges for providing material support to al-Shabaab. “It’s another thing if someone is at a black site, or all the way in Gitmo,” he told Gothamist, when asked what it was like to experience such austere isolation in downtown Manhattan. “But it is happening [right] next to you, and people don’t realize it.”
Like everyone else in the unit, while in 10 South Ahmed was placed under additional restrictions called Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). SAMs came into being in 1996, soon after the Oklahoma City bombing, and give the U.S. Attorney General sole discretion to limit a prisoner’s communication if a determination is made that there is “substantial risk” the prisoner’s contact with others could pose a security threat. (Guzmán is currently under SAMs).
During his time at MCC, Ahmed was only allowed to communicate with his attorneys and immediate family members, including his parents, siblings, wife and son. He was permitted one non-legal phone call each month along with one letter per week. But since the letters were first analyzed and copied by the FBI before being sent out, they often took one to two months to reach his loved ones. Communicating with the media was also strictly prohibited.
Former 10 South residents told us that prisoners are also not allowed to share books. If a guard brings a book out to the tier and one person reads it, the book must then be destroyed. SAMs generally prohibit prisoners from speaking to each other. At least one individual on 10 South lost his meager family phone privileges for months after greeting another detainee with the Arabic words “A-Salaam-Alaikum.”
A September 2017 report published by Yale Law School’s Allard K. Lowenstein’s International Human Rights Clinic and the Center for Constitutional Rights raised concerns that Muslims were disproportionately targeted by the measures. “It appears that a major criterion for deciding whom to place under SAMs was not the prisoner’s demonstrated capacity to communicate dangerous information, but rather the prisoner’s religion.”
In a 2011 letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, Amnesty International expressed concern that conditions on 10 South “fall short of international standards for humane treatment” and “appear incompatible with the presumption of innocence.” The brutal nature of life on the unit, including its extreme conditions of isolation, were also documented in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report about human rights abuses in US terrorism prosecutions.
During his six-year term as the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which ended in October 2016, the BOP prevented Juan Méndez from speaking to suspected or convicted terrorists. Méndez was able to investigate the conditions at 10 South by interviewing family members of the incarcerated and contacting the State Department about the allegations. He ultimately determined that international human rights protections had been violated.
“Prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement—that is, solitary confinement that is prolonged beyond a few days—inflicts mental pain and suffering consistent with the definition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Méndez told Gothamist. “And as I said, in some cases is consistent with the definition of torture.”
(Madeleine Crenshaw / Gothamist)
Public accountability has played a key role in Mayor de Blasio’s plan to shutter Rikers Island over the next decade and create borough-based jails for the 10,000 people held there. Even New York’s often brutal upstate prisons have come under increased scrutiny by the press and grassroots activists in recent years. New York State legislators voted last spring to stop automatically prosecuting 16 and 17 year olds as adults (although Raise the Age has yet to be fully implemented), and a bill sharply curtailing the use of solitary confinement has gained considerable ground.
But when it comes to federal facilities like MCC, the primary responsibility for oversight falls to Congress, which has a long track record of dereliction, according to Amy Fettig, Deputy Director for the ACLU's National Prison Project.
“Congress has so much going on, that for them to oversee the Bureau of Prisons in a systematic and effective manner is almost impossible,” Fettig said.
Her words were echoed by Phil Fornaci, the Director of the DC Prisoners’ Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, an organization which that has sued the BOP. “There’s no oversight unless there’s a [Congressional] hearing called,” he said.
Fornaci says the Department of Justice has investigated prison conditions on the state and local level. When it comes to the BOP, however, not only does the DOJ not provide oversight, but they actually defend the BOP in litigation. Both he and Fettig agreed that there needs to be an agency established external to both Congress and DOJ if the BOP is to be properly monitored.
The Justice Committee within the House of Representatives—and more specifically the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations—holds jurisdiction over prison issues.
No members of the subcommittee, which include 7 Democrats and 10 Republicans, responded to repeated requests for comment.
While there has been increasing advocacy for reforms to local jail and prison conditions, federal prisons remain a kind of political orphan, a situation compounded in the Trump era. “Rikers is a good example of the power of people in a democracy to hold their elected officials accountable,” said Fettig, “but in the federal context—federal facilities house people from all around the country, and so there’s no natural constituency in the state, city, county they’re located in” to express concern about what’s happening on the inside.
As a result, for people locked up at MCC, there’s little hope that conditions will improve anytime soon.
That could be exactly the way jailers and prosecutors want it. Pre-trial detention, which often lasts years, can become not only unsafe, but coercive; as a result, individuals are pressured to provide information to prosecutors or accept plea deals in their desperation to be released, say former prisoners.
“You want to plead guilty and get out of this dump to a prison,” said Nicky, the former inmate.“The feds have a 98% conviction rate for a reason,” Melvin Rodriguez, another former prisoner said. “They mentally break you.”
Asked why he thought MCC has received so much less coverage than Rikers, Rodriguez replied, “I think [MCC] went unnoticed because people think just because it’s the feds the conditions are better.There are certain things that go on in these places that the government covers so the public would never know."
Listen to Aviva Stahl discuss MCC with WNYC.
Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based journalist who primarily writes about prisons, especially the experiences of terrorism suspects and LGBTQ people behind bars. Follow her @stahlidarity.
This story was reported with support from a grant by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism Urban Reporting Project.