Jail is meant for people who do bad things, but it does not mean bad things should be done to these people. The Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park took its punishment a little too far. They’re being accused for the mistreatment of their female inmates. Now, local judges are refusing to send inmates to Sunset, and the case is only getting worse. Advocates argue the MDC is a reflection of a national disregard for women prisoners, both cis and trans.
This past June, the National Association of Women Judges reported the conditions of the Metropolitan Detention Center. Women held at MDC reported that they don’t have windows, particles fall from the ceiling as a result of no ventilation, they get little to no outside free time, and their cells are below living standards. Since 2013, NAWJ has been urging the Bureau of Prisons to address the situation in Sunset Park.
In their latest report, the judges noted that unlike during their last visit in 2015 the impression this time was that “these women had all but given up hope that things would get better.”
Brenda Murray, NAWJ co-chair, co-wrote the report and led the NAWJ attempts to solve the situation that has been brewing the past three years. In a push to get the word out about the prison conditions she has written a series of five letters, which she supplied NYU NewsDoc Voices, to various departments, including US Department of Justice.
Murray is also in constant contact with Dr. Alix McLearen, National Director of Bureau of Prisons, in order to change the conditions of the center.
According to Murray’s letters, the Metropolitan Detention Center inmates receive very limited programming. Some have limited access to their families. The conditions are dormitory-style – a single room where they sleep, eat, bathe and use the bathroom. No sentenced male offenders have been similarly treated for two and a half years.
The Bureau of Prisons has not responded to requests for comment, despite their initial willingness to do so.
The number of women across the country that have been incarcerated has increased 81% as of 2009, the latest year available, while the number of men is increasing at 45%. In addition to the very large increase, women in prison are being treated for substance abuse and mental health issues 23% more than men, according to the American Psychological Association. But the quality of treatment for these diseases are declining, despite their rise in incarceration numbers
Not only are women being incarcerated faster and suffering from health issues, but they’re also getting less visiting time with their families than their male counterparts and inadequate access to regular gynecologist visits. Starting in 2013, women from the MDC reported to NAWJ that they had limited feminine products and only had access to a gynecologist once a week. In the MDC, there are 111 women who need feminine care. The Bureau of Prisons recognizes that there is a national shortage of prison doctors, due to institutions, pay, and the correctional setting, negatively impact the BOP’s ability to recruit and retain medical professionals. The conditions have not changed.
The prison conditions for those who are trans is even worse. Forty percent of trans gendered prisoners are sexually assaulted every year, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. For trans gendered prisoners, the threat is real.The first ward in New York state for transgender inmates opened at Rikers in 2014. Typically there are between 30 and 35 transgendner women in DOC custody at any give time and inmates will placed in the unit voluntarily, according to a statement by the New York State Department of Corrections at the opening of the new unit. The Transgender Housing Unit has an initial capacity of 30 beds, which is expected to be sufficient to meet demand.
This comes after a very long restructuring of the Rikers system. In 2005, Rikers was forced to close its LGBTQ ward due to inefficient security. They were criticized by many activists groups for the amount of abuse that continued to occur because of the lax security.
This past summer, the US Department of Justice prohibited placing trans women in male cells, but the law has gone unnoticed. A majority of the corrections system houses their inmates according to their sex and not their gender identification. States like Massachusetts clearly state that a prisoner is to be housed by their birth sex, no matter how they identify in their daily lives.
Against this backdrop of women and trans women being ignored while incarcerated the situation in Sunset Park is getting worse. Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez wrote a letter in October to both the MDC and the Bureau of Prison demanding an explanation. Judge Cheryl Pollack refuses to send inmates to the MDC until the hearing in December.
Their mistreatment has serious consequences once they are released. The Clinical Infectious Diseases reports that the health of inmates has an impact on the health of correctional employees, the incarcerated, and the communities to which inmates return.
In the end, this influences everyone around them as well. Poor housing and poor clinics lead to the likelihood of them re-entering the system and being stuck in this cycle. While the Metropolitan Detention Center is not a permanent prison for most, many prisoners stay there for months, waiting for their sentence. As they’re waiting, they’re getting sicker.
“No suggestions have been made yet,” explains law clerk Sonya Rao, “The initial hearing was asking both parties to investigate the conditions and provide arguments as to why the defendant in the case should be sent there.”
The Metropolitan Detention Center hearing is December 15.