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