In her novel The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, Junauda Juanita Petrus-Nasah, an American author, filmmaker, and prison reform activist writes, “Incarceration is a sustained, lifetime lynching, meant to discard your soul and make a shell of you in plain life. Make you into your monster self, the beast that comes out when you are forced to survive in the absence of love and safety.”
It appears that one of the beast makers in New York may finally be going to meet its long-overdue demise, as the AP reports “. . . the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan will be closed at least temporarily to address issues that have long plagued the facility, including lax security and crumbling infrastructure.”
The Justice Department said in a statement, “In an effort to address the issues at MCC NY as quickly and efficiently as possible, the Department has decided to close the MCC, at least temporarily, until those issues have been resolved.”
The MCC became the center of the national conversation when Jeffrey Epstein, who was being held on multiple charges involving child prostitution, apparently killed himself during several lapses of security at the Manhattan prison (the investigation to this event has not been concluded). The federal Bureau of Prisons announced the decsion after Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco visited the prison and saw the conditions firsthand. What Monaco witnessed conjures images that mirror the horrors of Les Miserables.
According to the Daily Mail, “Inmates and lawyers have complained that MCC was infested with mice, rats and roaches and that multiple inmates were forced to share dirty sinks and toilets that leaked water, urine and feces.”
As The Gothamist points out, “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 was arrested in the Bronx on federal charges for selling drugs to a confidential informant told Gothamist, adding, “The cells [are] very small and at nighttime, you hear the mouses, see waterbugs in the shower.” Ricardo Stewart, another prisoner at MCC said, “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. They were more like roommates.”
Nicholas Tartaglione, a prisoner who initially shared a cell with Epstein, echoes these disturbing accounts, stating through his lawyer that there was a “‘serious’ rodent and insect infestation and that Tartaglione was forced to drink from a sink with mold on it and was not allowed to shower regularly or go outside,” the Journal News and Fox News reported. Moreover, as The Daily Mail points out, MCC has “ . . .also drawn scrutiny for problems including sexual assault allegations against correctional officers, a weeklong power failure in January 2019, and an inmate’s death last year after he was sprayed with pepper spray.”
Conditions were so bad at MCC that they were investigated by the United Nations (UN) and Amnesty International, who noted in a review that during pre-trial detention at the MCC “the combined effects of prolonged confinement to sparse cells with little natural light, no outdoor exercise and extreme social isolation amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” One of the most shocking findings was of the use of “10 South,” a special housing unit at MCC designated for solitary confinement cases. The UN review described the conditions in 10 South as nearly subhuman:
Based on information received from some detainees and their lawyers, suspects in 10 South spend twenty-three hours a day confined to their cells. Detainees shower inside their cells, so that they are alone almost all of the time. They are allowed one hour of recreation outside of their cells, which takes place in an indoor solitary recreation cage.
Recreation is periodically denied: detainees can pass days without leaving their cells. No outdoor recreation is allowed for detainees in 10 South and cell windows are frosted. The only fresh air enters through a window in the indoor recreation cage. The conditions at the MCC are dirty and decrepit; detainees and lawyers report that the temperature is not sufficiently regulated and varies between extreme cold and severe heat.
None of these findings are isolated incidents, but rather characterize a systemic web of malfeasance, malpractice, and corruption which spawn a litany of human rights violations that never seem to be addressed in any fundamental manner by leadership, which is seemingly nonexistent.
“There is no continuity, there is no leadership, there is no ability to get anything done. They lurch from crisis to crisis, from the gun smuggling to Jeffrey Epstein,” blasted Manhattan federal court, Judge Colleen McMahon, at the sentencing of a drug defendant.
In fact, Illinois News Today reports that “In March 2020, the prison was closed for a week after authorities were informed that guns could have been smuggled inside, shortly before the pandemic urged the federal prison to suspend visits. Investigators discovered pistols and other banned items such as cell phones, narcotics, and homemade weapons, triggering ongoing investigations into the illegal activities of security guards.”
Beyond the Epstein case, which has raised more questions than it has answers, MCC has come under fire for how it handled the coronavirus pandemic, especially early on in 2020. According to the NY Daily News, “. . . inmates say in sworn declarations filed in Manhattan Federal Court that calls for medical help are still being ignored, inmates with coronavirus symptoms continue to be placed among the general population and symptom screening sometimes amounts to a nurse asking a dorm full of inmates ‘Is everyone OK?’”
Pedro Vicioso-Lima, an MCC prisoner who was diagnosed with COVID-19, but still placed with a cellmate, lamented, “I still feel sick. I have chest pain, cough a lot at night, and all the nerves in my body hurt. I’m worried that I might still have COVID-19. I do not want to get other people sick.”
It’s easy to dismiss Vicioso-Lima’s allegations, given that he is “responsible for dealing fentanyl-laced heroin that has been tied to multiple suspected fatal and nonfatal overdoses,” as reported by the Southern District of New York of the United States Attorney’s Office. We are all aware of the deadly horrors the scourge of fentanyl-laced heroin has caused in the United States. The website heroine.net reports that “Between 2015 and 2016 alone, the number of deaths more than doubled, from 9,803 to 19,720.”
And perhaps Vicioso-Lima is beyond redemption, perhaps a life sentence is justified. I’m sure the parents, family members, and friends of those that died as a result of his fentanyl-laced death bombs would probably agree, and they won’t get any argument from me.
But the job of prison for most prisoners is threefold. One, keep dangerous prisoners from doing more harm to the public; two, make prisoners take responsibility for their crimes through appropriate punishment; and three, create the conditions that cause enough self-reflection that rehabilitation is at least a possibility.
MCC appears to have failed on two of these fronts. We simply have to do better. As Nelson Mandela put it, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”