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Judge says conditions too ‘dreadful’ at Brooklyn fed jail to lock up 70-year-old defendant

The judge laid out a litany of problems and staffing issues at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, noting many problems stem from a simple reality — with salaries starting at just over $45,000 for COs, it’s hard to find people willing to work there

Metropolitan Detention Center

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

By John Annese
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — A federal judge refused to send a defendant to Brooklyn’s troubled federal jail as he awaits sentencing because the conditions are so consistently awful — and his blistering ruling Thursday could result in fewer defendants being sent to the infamous lockup.

Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center is so “dreadful” and short-staffed that the jail’s problems constitute “extraordinary reasons” to not lock up Gustavo Chavez — a 70-year-old convicted drug dealer who followed all the rules of his bail, Manhattan Federal Court Judge Jesse Furman wrote in a 19-page ruling Thursday.

Furman laid out a litany of problems and staffing issues at the Sunset Park jail, noting many problems stem from a simple reality — with salaries starting at just over $45,000 for correction officers, it’s hard to find people willing to work there.

“There is no way the grim conditions at the jail will materially improve until the grave staffing shortages are addressed. And that is not going to happen unless the political branches commit considerably more resources to the matter, which seems unlikely to happen any time soon,” Furman wrote.

“Until that time comes, the best the courts can do is not add unnecessarily to the inmate population and thereby avoid exacerbating the already frightening staff-to-inmate ratio.”

Though Furman’s ruling applies only to Chavez, defense attorneys will likely use it to argue their clients should be released under similar circumstances.

“This is a very thorough, persuasive examination of how the conditions at the MDC are driven by chronic understaffing, and how the only solution is to detain fewer people,” said Chavez’s lawyer, Andrew Dalack of the Federal Defenders.

Several judges have publicly criticized conditions at the jail, and have even reduced defendants’ sentences based on what they’ve endured there, but Furman’s ruling is different, from those anecdotal examples, Dalack said. “What Judge Furman persuasively sets out is that there are compelling humanitarian grounds against putting people in jail, especially in a place like the MDC, unless there’s a really good reason to do so.”

Federal law requires judges lock up defendants prior to sentencing once they’re convicted of certain violent or serious drug offenses, barring vaguely described “exceptional reasons” they should be released.

“I am confident that virtually every defense counsel whose client is facing pretrial or presentencing detention in MDC will cite this case in support of an argument in favor of bail pending trial or sentencing,” former federal prosecutor Mitchell Epner told the Daily News Thursday.

He added, “Judge Furman and other judges in the Southern and Eastern District of New York do not want to be placed in the position where they are inflicting cruel and unusual punishment to pretrial detainees — or people who will be sentenced to low-security or detention camps — by putting them in one of the harshest prisons in America.”

The staffing levels are so bad that the jail is in a state of “near-perpetual lockdown,” with detainees locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day, with no access to visitors, phone calls, showers, classes or exercise, Furman wrote.

“In Orwellian fashion, the Bureau of Prisons does not refer to these periods as ‘lockdowns,’ instead, it refers to them as ‘modified operations,’” he wrote.

The judge referenced how another defendant kept a log showing he’d been in lockdown for 137 of his 245 days at the MDC last year.

“Contraband — from drugs to cell phones — is widespread. At least four inmates have died by suicide in the past three years,” Furman wrote.

In a statement that didn’t mention Furman’s ruling, Bureau of Prisons spokesman Donald Murphy said that the MDC was receiving “enhanced attention” through an agencywide hiring initiative.

“Our recruitment and retention are trending in the right direction overall as an agency,” Murphy said. He declined to answer questions about current staffing levels or how many times the MDC has been placed on lockdown.

One lawyer, Gerald McMahon , said he’s already planning to use the ruling in a bail appeal on behalf of Anthony Romanello — an 86-year-old reputed mobster sent to the MDC after a jury found him guilty of extortion conspiracy for punching a steakhouse owner to collect a gambling debt.

“I’ve already sent the opinion to [Judge Eric] Komitee and to the prosecutors. I’m trying to shame them to do the right thing,” McMahon said.

Criminal defense attorney Kenneth White , a former federal prosecutor who writes about legal issues and co-hosts the “Serious Trouble” podcast, described Furman’s ruling as “persuasive.”

“Judge Furman is generally respected, and he’s a former [assistant U.S. attorney], not some wild-eyed bomb-thrower,” White told the News.

He also called it “deeply embarrassing to the federal judiciary” that so few judges take similar steps.

“Americans have champagne tastes for imprisoning people but a Dr. Pepper budget. We love to throw people in jail and hate to pay for it,” White said. “Too often federal judges simply take an ‘it is what it is’ approach and accept appalling and unconstitutional conditions as a given.”

Furman, who worked as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan for eight years, was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2011 and confirmed in 2012.

The jurist referenced how the jail lost power for eight days in 2019 during a polar vortex, and pointed to several cases where MDC staff didn’t provide detainees proper medical care, despite an order from the judge.

That includes the recent case of James Young , which the Daily News first reported last month, who wasn’t transferred to a medical facility for a highly contagious MRSA infection until Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Dora Irizarry read Bureau of Prisons lawyers and prosecutors the riot act.

The jail has more than 1,500 inmates as of Thursday, and according to staffing levels from Nov. 28 , it had only filled 200 of its 301 correction officer positions.

In a June memo, Rhonda Barnwell , the head of the jail’s correction officer union, said the turnover rate at the MDC is 50%.

“The agency as a whole has failed to assist MDC Brooklyn with the staffing crisis, hence allowing MDC Brooklyn to fail.” she wrote. “What are you waiting for, another loss of inmate life?”

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