Attys Lose Access Fight Over NYC Jail Conditions For Now

By Stewart Bishop | March 3, 2019, 8:02 PM EST

A New York federal judge on Friday declined to renew an order mandating strict access to attorneys for inmates in a Brooklyn federal jail that had no heat for a frigid week in January, finding the lawyers who sued over the ordeal lack standing to bring Sixth Amendment claims.

U.S. District Judge Margo K. Brodie issued the ruling at the close of a hearing in a suit brought by the Federal Defenders of New York against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the warden of the Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn.

According to the Federal Defenders' suit, after a fire took out the jail's power and heat on Jan. 27, officials did not take proper steps to repair the damage or find temporary means of heating and powering the jail. Inmates were left in icy conditions for a week and denied meetings with their attorneys or any other visits.

Judge Brodie last month ordered the MDC to reinstate its usual attorney visiting hours and set up strict notification policies for any interruption, but on Friday she decided against extending her temporary restraining order or issuing a preliminary injunction, deciding that the Federal Defenders lack standing to assert that their clients' Sixth Amendment rights to counsel were violated.

"Here, I think the government is right, that as to the Sixth Amendment, it is the right of the accused and not the lawyers," Judge Brodie said. "While the inmates have the right to bring this particular claim, the Federal Defenders don't."

However, the judge gave the Federal Defenders leave to amend their lawsuit. Deirdre von Dornum, the attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders for the Eastern District of New York, told reporters after the hearing they plan to add inmates as plaintiffs to cure the standing issue.

"We have them ready to go, but we didn't want to put them through the additional stress," von Dornum said, saying some inmates have faced retaliation for being named in a lawsuit. "We have to take that into consideration."

A Bureau of Prisons representative declined to comment on the case.

Judge Brodie's earlier temporary restraining order directed the MDC to reinstate its usual attorney visiting hours and required that if attorney visits were suspended for more than two hours, the jail had to provide the court and the Federal Defenders with an explanation.

The conditions at the MDC sparked protests and condemnation by public officials after a Feb. 1 article in The New York Times said that over 1,000 inmates had been living in freezing conditions for at least a week on partial lockdown.

The Federal Defenders sued days later, focusing on the deprivation of the inmates' Sixth Amendment right to an attorney but highlighting the "humanitarian crisis" at the prison.

According to the complaint, when attorneys with the Federal Defenders were allowed to tour the jail under another court order, which was issued before the lawsuit was filed, they saw it was cold enough that guards were bundled up in multiple layers and scarves, but many prisoners were wearing cotton clothes with short sleeves.

Many inmates were also left in total darkness because the lights in the cells were not working, according to the complaint, and some had not received medication, including some people with serious medical conditions. Water had become unreliable as well, the complaint said.

The complaint also alleged that MDC Brooklyn and the Bureau of Prisons lied to the public and the courts about conditions, noting statements that directly contradicted what attorneys saw inside.

Among other things, the Federal Defenders are seeking the appointment of a special master as an independent third party to assess conditions at MDC.

After the suit was filed, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it will ask the department's Office of the Inspector General review the situation to determine if the Bureau of Prisons handled the situation appropriately and if the facility's contingency plans are up to the job of dealing with similar events in the future.

The Federal Defenders are represented by Sean Hecker, Jenna M. Dabbs, Joshua Matz Derek Wikstrom, Matthew J. Craig and Benjamin D. White of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP.

The government is represented by Seth D. Eichenholtz, Sean P. Greene and Clayton P. Solomon of the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York.

The case is Federal Defenders of New York Inc. v. Federal Bureau of Prisons et al., case number 1:19-cv-00660, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

--Additional reporting by Emma Cueto. Editing by Brian Baresch.

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