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Atty Access Win Marks Bigger Fight Over Prison's Conditions

By Emma Cueto | February 10, 2019, 8:02 PM EST

Amid mounting questions about conditions in a Brooklyn federal prison that lost power and heat in January, the more than 1,600 men and women living there have earned a court victory providing access to attorneys, but the legal fight following the alleged humanitarian crisis isn't over.

Just hours after a group of public defenders filed a lawsuit against the prison, a judge ordered in no uncertain terms that prison officials need to let prisoners see their lawyers.

The Federal Defenders of New York filed their suit on Monday, Feb. 4, in New York federal court, alleging that the conditions inside Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn were nothing short of a "humanitarian crisis." After losing power and heat on Sunday, Jan. 27, due to a fire, prison officials did not take proper steps to repair the damage or find temporary means of heating and powering the facility, the complaint alleged.

During the seven days before power was restored, the prison also canceled all visits from family members and attorneys, according to the complaint, isolating the hundreds of people for a week while the heat remained broken and temperatures in the prison dropped.

"The court recognizes that security concerns are ever-present in the prison context," U.S. District Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall wrote in response to prison official’s argument that allowing visitors would impact their ability to address safety issues. "This alone, however, does not permit the wholesale denial of a detainee's Sixth Amendment right [to an attorney]."

The ruling ordered the prison to reinstate its usual attorney visiting hours, adding that if attorney visits were suspended for more than two hours, the prison was required to notify the court and explain its reasoning.

Notably, Judge Hall also said in the ruling that, if the allegations about conditions inside MDC Brooklyn proved to be true, "there can be little question that such conditions are constitutionally intolerable."

And although the power is back on, the complaint suggests that the attorneys involved in the suit are worried that there might be ongoing problems with attorney access and prison conditions.

According to Jenna Dabbs of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, an attorney representing the Federal Defenders, the next step in the suit is to try for a preliminary injunction, which, if granted, would extend the judge's order to remain in effect while the rest of the suit is still being hashed out.

A hearing on the injunction is scheduled for this week, she said. Because of the pressing nature of the issue, she said that she would expect the judge to rule on their request for the injunction at the hearing or shortly thereafter.

The Federal Defenders' lawsuit is focused on the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney, but Dabbs said that she and her clients consider the conditions at the prison to be "intricately connected" to the alleged Sixth Amendment violations. And the complaint highlights serious reason for alarm regarding conditions in MDC Brooklyn.

According to the complaint, when attorneys with the Federal Defenders were allowed to tour the facility following another court order, which was issued before the lawsuit was filed, they observed that the facility 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 observed in the facility.

And going forward, those conditions are likely to come under new scrutiny as well.

Judge Hall observed in her order reinstating attorney visits: "If the conditions of confinement at MDC are as represented in plaintiff's submissions, there can be little question that such conditions are constitutionally intolerable."

The U.S. Department of Justice has also announced that it will ask the department's Office of the Inspector General review the situation to determine if the BOP 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 Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Prisons are committed to the safe and humane living and working conditions of all inmates and employees," the department said in a statement Wednesday.

Dabbs, however, said that while she was glad the DOJ had taken notice, she thinks there should also be an independent review, noting that the BOP is a division of the DOJ and that the department is also responsible for defending the BOP in court as its attorneys.

In fact, one of the demands of the lawsuit is that the court appoint a special master to act as an independent third party to assess conditions at MDC.

Dabbs said that she had heard some talk of a separate lawsuit to address conditions at the prison as a stand-alone issue. Whether or not such a suit is filed though, she said that conditions at the prison would continue to be a focus in the Federal Defenders' case.

The status at MDC Brooklyn, she added, really highlighted just how crucial it was for men and women behind bars to have access to attorneys, who can serve as a vehicle for fighting unacceptable prison conditions.

"Denial of access to attorneys has really significant collateral harms," she said. "When that's cut off, you have the potential for really unacceptable circumstances to develop."

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.

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--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.