Congressional candidates call for greater oversight at troubled MDC

NY-10 candidates are demanding the feds allow elected officials to make unauthorized visits to the notorious MDC-Brooklyn jail.
Photo by Ben Brachfeld

The candidates vying for the open 10th Congressional District seat in Manhattan and Brooklyn are calling for greater oversight at the Metropolitan Detention Center, the notorious federal jail in Sunset Park where around 1,600 mainly pretrial inmates allegedly live in harrowing conditions.

Dan Goldman, Mondaire Jones, Yuh-Line Niou, Carlina Rivera, and Jo-Anne Simon all signed a letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters lambasting the “deplorable and inhumane conditions of confinement” facing individuals incarcerated at the long-troubled lockup.

The deplorable conditions alleged include being denied food on a fixed schedule, poor-quality drinking water, lack of access to showers, insufficient medical care, constant lockdowns, and restricted visits by family members and lawyers.

“Through systematic dysfunction at MDC Brooklyn, we’ve already become judge and jury,” Niou said at a Tuesday morning press conference in front of the jail. “Sentencing everyone inside to years of unacceptable and dangerous conditions.”

City Comptroller Brad Lander speaks at MDC, with NY-10 candidates Carlina Rivera and Mondaire Jones behind him.Photo by Ben Brachfeld

MDC, which houses about 1,600 inmates, has been the subject of repeated controversies in recent years owing to appalling conditions and abuse faced by inmates. In 2019, detainees were forced to live without heat for a week during an extreme winter cold spell, leading many to bang on windows begging for help. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, inmates alleged being locked in their cells nearly around the clock while also being provisioned with inadequate masks and other personal protective equipment. Just last month, a group of defense lawyers said they were trapped in the jail for hours during a lockdown.

Four detainees have died by suicide at MDC in the past two years. Others have died under contentious circumstances: Jamel Floyd died in custody at MDC in June 2020 after being pepper sprayed by two dozen guards during a medical episode, none of whom provided medical care to him when he suffered a heart attack and eventually lost a pulse, his family alleges.

The Floyd family has sued MDC and 30 corrections officers involved, and their case remains pending.

James Floyd shows a photo of his son Jamel to a crowd outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park in June 2021.File Photo by Paul Frangipane

Former MDC inmate Larry Williams — who says his 17 years in the lockup are the longest anyone was ever detained there — described the jail as “like a gulag” which still traumatizes him to this day, even after getting a college degree and becoming a criminal justice reform advocate post-incarceration.

Williams said that the extant problems are accompanied by a culture of retaliation by guards against any inmate that dares speak up about the conditions they’re forced to live in; guards would run the gambit from stealing whistleblowers’ personal belongings to forcing them to go to solitary confinement.

“It’s one of the worst prisons you could think about,” Williams said. “Don’t just look at it and go by it. You have people suffering in there. I was one of them. I still sometimes have flashbacks when I’m sleeping, and I’ll wake up to see that it’s trauma that I experienced.”

Conditions have only deteriorated further since the closure of the Manhattan federal jail, Metropolitan Correctional Center, last year, and subsequent transfer of hundreds of inmates there to MDC, lawyers say.

Former MDC inmate Larry Williams described harrowing conditions he and others faced at the troubled lockup.Photo by Ben Brachfeld

The issues are compounded by a shocking lack of transparency from jail officials, pols and lawyers say. The five candidates say that, whoever wins the Aug. 23 primary, they expect the feds to permit federal elected officials to make unannounced visits to observe conditions and speak with detainees, and they expect quarterly meetings with BOP honchos to discuss implementation of reforms.

“Fighting for reform in any part of our criminal justice system requires strong oversight to keep plans on track,” Rivera said. “We cannot afford anything less than urgent and swift reform in our jails, whether city, state, or federally operated.”

Reached for comment, BOP would not discuss the contents of the letter but said the feds are “committed” to the safety of those in their custody.

“We value and appreciate the interest in MDC Brooklyn,” said BOP spokesperson Randilee Giamusso. “The Bureau of Prisons is committed to ensuring the safety and security of all inmates in our population, our staff, and the public.  Humane treatment of the men and women in our custody is a top priority.”

The feds are not the only ones mismanaging a sprawling jail complex for pretrial detainees in the five boroughs. This week, city-managed Rikers Island saw its 12th inmate death this year. This year, the continuing chaos on the island has led the Rikers federal monitor to take extraordinary steps to suggest the feds wrest control of jail operations from the city, unless Corrections Department honchos could come up with a plan to stabilize the situation.

DOC did end up presenting a plan to avert a federal takeover, and the city remains in charge of the island’s jails. But critics of the city’s carceral policies like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (no relation to Larry) say that the feds hardly have a leg to stand on in critiquing DOC’s operation of Rikers, given their own horrific mismanagement of MDC.

“We have seen over a few years that people left to their own devices, who have the power over the system, will not do the right thing,” the public advocate said. “You cannot ask us, federal government, to take over Rikers when you’re failing here.”

This story has been updated with comment from the Bureau of Prisons