After Scathing Report This Summer, Sunset Park Women’s Prison Back In Spotlight

The Metropolitan Detention Center, on 29th Street near the waterfront, houses 1,800 inmates. (Photo via U.S. Bureau of Prisons)

On June 3rd, 2016, four judges — Robin S. Garson, Cheryl J. Gonzales, Brenda P. Murray and Betty J. Williams — visited the federal women’s prison located within the Metropolitan Detention Center on 29th Street, west of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.

The judges, three local and one federal, and all members of the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ), described conditions for women in the Sunset Park prison as “unconscionable,” and in violation of international standards related to the treatment of prisoners.

The judges said they found 161 women housed in two large rooms with “no windows so there is no fresh air or sunlight. The women are in the room 24/7, with no opportunity for outside exercise.”

The federal women’s prison at the MDC, which apparently is not intended to be permanent, is now back in the news. (Inmates were first moved there in December, 2013 after the U.S. Bureau of Prisons temporarily closed a federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut.) The Daily News reported on Monday that a federal judge has been alerted that staff at the MDC “may be retaliating” against female inmates who complained about conditions.

Deirdre von Dornum, the attorney-in-charge for the federal defenders in Brooklyn, raised the issue in a letter to Magistrate Judge Cheryl Pollack, the News says. Judge Pollack has ordered a hearing on October 27th regarding “allegations of unconstitutional conditions of confinement for female inmates.”

According to the News, Judge Pollak was prompted to investigate conditions at the jail after Judges Garson, Gonzales, Murray and Williams wrote about their visit this summer. Pollack reportedly has said she is “reluctant to remand women to the jail until she can determine what the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is doing to remedy the longstanding problems.”

“Complete Absence Of Sunlight”

According to the National Association of Women Judges, the Metropolitan Detention Center maintains two buildings, one eight and the other nine stories high. Women prisoners are held on an upper floor of one of the buildings. In June, the Detention Center was holding 111 women who have been sentenced “and should be housed at Danbury,” along with 50 additional women in pre-trial status, the judges who visited said.

At least one of the women appeared to be pregnant, reported the judges, who are members of the NAWJ’s subcommittee on women in prison.

Of the MDC’s 1,800 inmates, over 1,600 are men, the judges stated, including 300 men who are there permanently.

Concerns raised by the judges after their June visit included prisoners being served food that is sometimes spoiled and moldy, a complete lack of fresh air and sunshine, sporadic air conditioning, poor medical care (especially in regards to women’s health issues), no access to prison work programs, and a lack of clarity about the availability of psycho-social services.

Judges Garson, Gonzales, Murray and Williams wrote:

“We concluded that in March 2015, conditions for women at MDC since December 2013 were unconscionable and they remain so in June 2016.
The absence of fresh, clean air, the complete absence of sunlight, and the absence of ANY outdoor time and activities are immediate issues which BOP has failed to address in any meaningful fashion. As noted in our prior report, these conditions violate the ABA Standards on Treatment of Prisoners and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
The few activities arranged for families do not address these major deficiencies. MDC Brooklyn is a temporary detention facility and is an inappropriate facility to house women or any person long term.”


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