“Temporary” Move Kept Some Female Inmates in Brooklyn MDC for Years

A report notes inadequate care and conditions for women housed in New York detention facility after being moved from a women's prison to ease overcrowding for male inmates.

A report notes inadequate care and conditions for women housed in New York detention facility after being moved from a women's prison to ease overcrowding for male inmates.

By Christopher Zoukis

More than a hundred long-term female federal inmates who would previously have been housed in a prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut – the only federal prison for women in the entire Northeastern United States – have instead wound up being sent to crammed quarters in a few windowless rooms in a federal detention center in Brooklyn, New York. Some of them have been incarcerated for up to three years in the facility a group of women judges have said fails to meet basic standards for prisoner care.

To ease overcrowding in male correctional facilities, in December 2013 the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) planned to switch the site to an all-male facility, and transferred inmates from the Danbury women’s prison to Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC). BOP reportedly made the decision a year before the transfer started, and for the past three years, women who would formerly have been assigned to Danbury have instead been sent to the Brooklyn MDC.

The largest federal detention center, MDC consists of two buildings of eight or nine stories, each with various security levels. The facility’s main purpose is to house inmates who will be there only short-term, such as those awaiting trial or being transferred. One prison website described it as “in essence, a big county jail” — but in fact its 1,800 or so inmates now range from newly arrived inmates and some nearing release, housed in low-security areas, to high-security inmates held in a Supermax-style isolation unit (where Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, flown into the U.S. from Mexico in mid-January to stand trial, is expected to take up residence).

The MDC has also been described in harsher terms, notably by a group of women judges who twice inspected the facilities where the Danbury transferees have been housed. According to the National Association of Women Judges, conditions at the Brooklyn MDC violate standards issued by the American Bar Association and the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners promulgated by the United Nations.

The judges’ report notes female MDC inmates have no access to the outdoors and complain they do not receive adequate medical care, particularly gynecological services. On the latter issue, the report says the MDC’s recently appointed warden claims BOP has been unable to find physicians willing to work there. The report also stated that because the MDC is primarily a temporary detention facility, it has fewer programs and opportunities for education and work training. As a result, the judges recommended that it is unsuitable for women or for other prisoners sentenced to longer sentences.

The Brooklyn MDC has had an array of other problems. In the first two weeks of January alone, one MDC guard was charged with conspiring with an inmate’s girlfriend to smuggle drugs and cellphones into the facility, and another was arraigned on charges of attempting to hire an undercover agent to seriously injure his ex-wife and her new boyfriend.

The women’s transfer was supposed to be temporary, for BOP estimated 18 months, but the female inmates found that their stay in the Brooklyn jail stretched on, lasting as long as three years. The BOP has recently begun moving some women back from Brooklyn to Danbury.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at  PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

GOP Legislators Tell BOP: Freeze Bid to Cut Private Prison Use

A Congressional letter advises the Bureau of Prisons should not rush to downscale the use of private prisons, instead giving the incoming Trump administration a chance to review recommendations and develop its own policy position. 

A Congressional letter advises the Bureau of Prisons should not rush to downscale the use of private prisons, instead giving the incoming Trump administration a chance to review recommendations and develop its own policy position. 

By Christopher Zoukis

Last August, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it would phase out all use of privately owned facilities over five years for housing Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmates. Private prisons presently house 15 percent of BOP inmates, and private prisons house about five times more state prisoners than they do for BOP.

The new DOJ policy — which followed a report by the agency’s inspector general claiming private prisons generally offer lesser services and security than do BOP-run sites — does not cover what’s known as Criminal Alien Requirement (or CAR) facilities, which BOP leases mainly to hold criminal aliens deportable after serving their time.

But in the waning days of the Obama administration, some Republican members of Congress went on record with DOJ and BOP, warning them against last-minute moves to adopt reduced or canceled CAR contracts with private prisons.

In their joint Dec. 9 letter, three Senators and two House members pointedly advised Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (who announced DOJ’s August policy change) and acting BOP director Thomas Kane to “place an immediate hold” on BOP’s request for bids for substantially fewer spaces in private detention facilities to house criminal aliens.

The letter noted BOP in early 2015 had requested bids for space for 10,800 CAR inmates, but —after DOJ’s August announcement — slashed that number to 3,600, a two-thirds reduction. In light of the 2016 elections and surging illegal immigration across the nation’s southern border, the Congressional letter advised, BOP should not rush action on the downscaled request, but instead give the incoming Trump administration a chance to review it and “develop its own policy position.”

Sending the letter were Texas's two Republican Senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, plus the Senate’s longest-serving GOP member, Orrin Hatch of Utah. Two Republican House members from Texas, Reps. Michael McCaul and Bill Flores, also signed.

In a related development, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), whose divisions include both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Customs and Border Patrol, issued a report on Dec. 1 on whether DHS should discontinue using private detention facilities. DHS has “family detention facilities” for persons without criminal records discovered in the country without documentation, awaiting hearings on whether they qualify for asylum or other amnesty programs set up by the Obama administration.

After DOJ announced its plans to phase out BOP use of for-profit detention facilities, advocates pressured DHS to adopt a similar stance – even though ICE only operates about 10 percent of its own detention facilities, relying on private firms and local jails for the rest. A week after the DOJ announcement, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson asked the Homeland Security Advisory Council to create a new subcommittee to study the issue and report back to him in two months.

The new panel on “Privatized Immigration Detention Facilities” called for boosting funding to expand ICE health care and oversight at detention centers. Its most divisive issue proved to be whether, in light of current funding levels and the need for flexible capacity when immigration levels change rapidly, DHS would have to keep using private for-profit detention facilities. The subcommittee included that statement in its draft, but couldn’t win a majority in the full committee.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at  PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

Super-Expensive Hepatitis C Drugs Raise Cost, Limit Prison Use

Sky-high costs for hepatitis C drugs has meant rationing or denial of treatment for many prisoners.

Sky-high costs for hepatitis C drugs has meant rationing or denial of treatment for many prisoners.

By Christopher Zoukis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 3 million people in the U.S., or about 1 percent of the population, have hepatitis C, a common blood-borne viral infection that inflames and can permanently damage the liver. HCV raises the risk of cirrhosis, liver cancer and chronic liver disease. It’s been identified as the leading cause for liver transplants.

Because HCV infections can persist over very long periods before presenting active symptoms, many infected people may not realize they are carrying the disease, so the CDC estimate may well be an understatement. Medical researchers say the death rate for HCV has been rising in recent years, and mark 2007 as the year it began killing more Americans than did HIV.

The highest rates of hepatitis C infection can be found in the nation’s jails and prisons. Estimates for inmate HCV infection rates range from 10 percent to over one-third. Risky behaviors like intravenous drug use or sharing injection or tattoo needles, either before or during incarceration, help account for this, since HCV can be spread by very small amounts of blood.

In recent years, highly effective new HCV medicines have been developed, with unprecedented cure rates. Harvoni and Solvadi, two new medications from Gilead Sciences now lead the field, and act faster and cure more than 90 percent of cases for the most common U.S. strain of HCV.

Yet in fiscal year 2015, among the 9,216 HCV-diagnosed federal inmates, only 222 received such HCV medications – at a cost of almost $13.7 million. The reason: a 12-week course of Harvoni and Solvadi lists for $94,500 and $84,000, respectively. Other products are not quite as expensive, but still have stratospheric prices. A 12-week treatment course of Zepatier from Merck lists for $54,000, Johnson & Johnson asks $66,000 for Olysio, and AbbVie prices Viekara Pak at $83,000.

Fortunately, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) pays substantially less, since – like the Department of Defense — it can take advantage of the hefty discounts drug makers negotiate with the Department of Veterans Affairs. State corrections systems can sometimes get in on such deals, or manage to cut their own (but usually spend much more than BOP).

State corrections systems also vary widely on how closely they monitor or treat inmates for HCV. Even though BOP guidelines on HCV treatment recommend screening all new sentenced inmates for HCV (while allowing individuals to opt out), some states still don’t routinely do so. And only about one percent of eligible HCV-infected inmates in state prisons receive the pricy new medications.

With the large pool of HCV-infected patients and soaring costs of medications, the result is often rationing or treatment denial. For instance, BOP’s HCV treatment guidelines classify inmates into four priorities, depending on medical and other factors— such as time left in their sentence.

In recent weeks, a federal judge has ordered a Pennsylvania prison to provide new HCV drugs to Mumia Abu-Jamal — who’s serving a life sentence for a 1982 conviction in a highly-publicized policeman murder case— saying it’s unconstitutional not to do so, regardless of cost. The state is likely to appeal the order, the nation’s first of its type, but similar cases have been filed in at least three other states — Massachusetts, Minnesota and Tennessee.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at  PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

Supermax Warden Isn’t Liable for Inmate Suicide: Appeals Court

No staff culpability for inmate's suicide at Colorado "Supermax" prison, federal court finds.

No staff culpability for inmate's suicide at Colorado "Supermax" prison, federal court finds.

By Christopher Zoukis
 
Apparently ending a long-running case, in late December a three-judge panel of federal appeals court in Denver affirmed dismissal of a lawsuit against the warden of the top-security federal prison in Florence, Colorado. The lawsuit, first filed in 2012, claimed the warden’s “deliberate indifference” to an inmate’s unmet mental health needs amounted to negligent failure to prevent the inmate’s May 2010 suicide.
 
Officially known as the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, or ADX, but more commonly called the “Supermax,” the facility keeps inmates in near-total isolation. Designed to hold the most dangerous inmates in the federal system, either because of the crimes for which they have been convicted, or because of their misconduct in less secure facilities, ADX inmates include such notorious figures as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, 1993 World Trade Center bombing planner Ramzi Yousef, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City federal building bomber Terry Nichols, Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, and many others.

The lawsuit filed in 2012 by the brother of inmate Jose Martin Vega against warden Blake R. Davis was framed as a Bivens action, referring to a Supreme Court case allowing damages lawsuits for constitutional violations by officials. It claimed that, by failing to give Vega needed medications, then disciplining him for how he behaved while deprived of those medications, the warden and prison staff violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, thus making them personally liable for failing to prevent the prisoner’s in-cell hanging.


Though Vega was known to be at high risk for suicide, the lawsuit claimed, ADX did not adequately screen or treat him for his mental illness. Originally sentenced to life for armed drug trafficking and other offenses, Vega attacked a prison official with a razor blade while at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in 2003, inflicting a facial wound requiring 28 stitches. According to a court record, after the assault, Vega was subdued, drugged and beaten while unconscious for at least an hour.

Vega was next sent to the nearby federal prison in Allenwood, where he was put on suicide watch. When he complained about his treatment at Lewisburg, he was sent to ADX for about a year. Diagnosed there as a paranoid schizophrenic, after a suicide attempt in 2005, he was transferred to the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Missouri. During a year there, he was diagnosed with severe mental illness. When sent back to ADX, he was placed in the most restricted area, where drugs for his mental illness were not permitted. In the next four years, Vega deteriorated physically (he lost 50 pounds and began self-mutilation) and mentally (other prisoners described him as delusional and generally incoherent).

A federal judge hearing the case in 2013 rejected defense claims that the warden was immune to the lawsuit, but the next year, federal appeal court reversed that decision and sent the case back to district court. The case was amended, but the appellate court again found insufficient evidence that the recently arrived warden knew enough about Vega’s condition to be held responsible. Meanwhile, a separate class-action lawsuit filed by ADX inmates attacking inadequate mental health care there remains to be decided. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at  PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

Department of Justice Audit Faults Private-Run Prison in Natchez

A new DOJ report criticizes deficiencies in staffing and conditions at the privately run Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi.

A new DOJ report criticizes deficiencies in staffing and conditions at the privately run Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi.

By Christopher Zoukis

A federal prison in Natchez, Mississippi, run by the largest private operator of correctional facilities drew a scathing audit report from the Inspector General of the Department of Justice (DOJ) in mid-December, just weeks before a new administration likely to be more favorably disposed toward private prisons takes office.

Since April 2009, DOJ’s Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has contracted with the Nashville-based company CoreCivic, Inc. — which changed its name from Corrections Corporation of America in October — to run the low-security Adams County Correctional Center. It houses up to 2,567 male, noncitizen — primarily Mexican — inmates. The agency signed two-year renewals twice, as recently as 2015, and another renewal option arises in July 2017. Since October 2009, DOJ has paid $468 million for the private facility, making it the agency’s third-largest contract during that time.

Despite the sizable outlay, all did not run smoothly. In May 2012, during an inmate riot, a young guard was beaten to death, and 20 prison staff and inmates injured. After the riot, BOP identified understaffing, inexperience, and communication problems as contributing factors. An FBI agent characterized the riot as inmates’ protest against bad food, inadequate medical care and allegedly abusive staff.

The DOJ inspector general’s just-released audit showed, even four years later, the Natchez prison has not fixed many of its earlier-identified problems. The audit’s authors voiced deep concern the prison was still “plagued by the same significant deficiencies.”

In half the months following the riot, the audit found, prison staffing levels were even lower than at the time of the riot. The audit calculated staffing levels differently from the company’s method, saying it didn’t reflect actual hours worked. The DOJ audit also said company staffing levels frequently fell below the minimums set by BOP regulations.

The audit further claimed medical staffing levels were similarly overstated, with just one doctor and dentist available much of the time, in violation of standards in BOP’s contract. One press account drawing on prison-monitoring documents claimed at least seven inmates at the Natchez prison likely died from inadequate medical care.

The audit also faulted the facility for having very few Spanish speakers on staff. In July 2015, the facility’s 367 staffers included only four fluent in Spanish for about 2,300 foreign nationals, predominantly Spanish speakers. And the company’s pay and benefits substantially lagged levels at BOP and state prisons, resulting high turnover and a deficit of experienced staff. The company disputed the audit findings and claimed it had made improvements.

The new audit by the DOJ inspector general’s office is its latest — but not its only — sharply criticizing private prisons. In April 2015, the office made similar criticisms of the Reeves County Correctional Center, a West Texas facility run by the Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut).

This August, the DOJ inspector general issued an extensive report stating both inmate safety and security were generally worse at private prisons than at federally operated ones. One week later, DOJ announced that it intended to phase out its use of private prisons within five years. However, since then, it has renewed contracts with two private prisons. Eliminating federal use of private prisons was a plank in the Democratic presidential platform, but during the campaign, Republican standard-bearer Donald Trump spoke favorably of private prisons. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at  PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com