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Lawsuit Over Conditions at BOP’s New York City Prison Continues as COVID-19 Spreads

by David M. Reutter

A prison health expert report found that Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) is “not prepared to effectively contain any outbreak of COVID-19 and its practices put detainees and staff at grave risk of infection, serious illness, and even death.”

The April 3, 2020 report was a factor in a criminal defendant facing bank fraud conspiracy charges being sentenced to home confinement.

Dr. Homer Venters toured the 1,700-bed lock-up, interviewed 17 detainees and reviewed prison records. Venters, a medical doctor and epidemiologist, is the former chief medical officer for New York City jails. He was pegged to investigate conditions at MDC, a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility, to inform a federal court overseeing a proposed class-action civil rights lawsuit challenging conditions at MDC.

That lawsuit was filed after a January 2019 fire took out the jail’s power and heat. Prisoners were left in frigid conditions for a week. The jail also canceled all visits, including attorney visits. That spawned an ongoing lawsuit by the Federal Defenders of New York. See: Federal Defenders of New York Inc. v. Federal Bureau of Prisons et al., USDC (E.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:19-cv-00660.

Venters found numerous problems in the administration of medical care at MDC. He noted that nurses do not always respond to a prisoner’s request for medical care and, when they do, they often do nothing more than take the person’s temperature. Two prisoners reported having asthma attacks, but the nurse fails to conduct a basic assessment of listening to their lungs and gauging their breathing.

“These responses raise the concern that MDC is not only failing to provide adequate COVID-19 response, but is failing to provide the most basic assessment of patients in other types of medical distress or emergency,” Venters said. He noted that not only are sick-call requests ignored, they are discarded, which is a “very alarming practice” because it means MDC “does not know how many requests were made, and how many were responded to.”

He also cited the cases of two detainees who reported “shortness of breath, chills, weakness to the extent he could not get out bed, and loss of taste and smell — all of which are signs of COVID-19 infection.” Those detainees made several requests for care that were ignored and when a nurse responded, one detainee’s temperature was taken. A normal reading resulted in the prisoner being placed back on his unit.

Venters found a “gross deviation” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and prison health-care standards. “The MDC’s response to COVID-19 is largely reliant on a broken sick call system that does not function adequately,” Venters said.

U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman noted MDC’s “deficient system” at the sentencing of Terrance Morgan, who pleaded guilty in October 2019 to conspiracy to commit bank fraud for a scheme to steal $2.5 million from a law firm’s bank account.

“I have to say it’s a very serious document. It’s not surprising to me. I’ve personally become acutely aware of the deficiencies at . . . MDC,” Berman said about Venters’ report. While Berman did not say MDC’s conditions were the reason for sentencing Morgan to 14 months’ time served, three months of home confinement, and four years supervised release, it was clearly a factor.

Berman said Venter’s report requires a response from BOP. The response, however, was to move to strike the entire report in the civil case or to depose Venters for a second time. See: United States v. Morgan et al., USDC (S.D.N.Y), Case No. 1:19-cr-00209. 


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Related legal case

United States v. Morgan et al.