Freezing Jail Cells, Broken Showers, and Covid-19

Freezing Jail Cells, Broken Showers, and Covid-19

Freezing Jail Cells, Broken Showers, and Covid-19

More than a month into New York City’s coronavirus outbreak, life in one of the most notorious jails continues to deteriorate.


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John Martinez has been feeling ill for days—though not from the novel coronavirus that has been making others around him sick. Martinez, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, is in custody at the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC), otherwise known as “the Tombs,” a fortress-like municipal jail just south of Canal Street. More than two weeks ago, Martinez said, he and other men inside the Tombs were moved into new “quarantine” quarters in the jail after they were exposed to a corrections officer who was sick with the virus. In order to do this, they report, the MDC has opened up sections of the facility previously designated as uninhabitable.

“The fumes in here are crazy,” Martinez recalled telling the captain when he was moved to his new quarters. “We can’t go to our cells and go to sleep in this, there’s a chance we might not even wake up.”

Martinez said that the captain replied, “Well, if you die, then have one of your family members take it up with the [Department of Correction]. That’s not my problem.”

In late March, The Nation reported that men inside the MDC had begun showing symptoms of Covid-19 but the facility had taken few measures to protect anyone inside. The news was yet more evidence that prisons are likely to become—as some already are—incubators for major coronavirus outbreaks, and that the MDC, with its 900 beds, is a prime candidate for a Covid-19 eruption.

The MDC is New York City’s central booking facility for people awaiting trial. This means that the majority of people in the jail haven’t been convicted of a charge but are, rather, being held simply because they cannot make bail. While Rikers Island, the city’s most notorious jail, has gained significant attention for the reports of Covid-19 sweeping through its staff and detainee populations, the city’s other jails have been largely overlooked. Just two weeks ago, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to release 300 people serving sentences for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies on Rikers Island, but he has made few comments about the MDC.

The Nation spoke with eight people incarcerated within the MDC about conditions there. The men report that there are sick corrections officers, or COs, and inmates alike. The New York City Department of Correction (DOC) could neither confirm nor deny cases of Covid-19 at the MDC specifically. However, the DOC acknowledged that it’s safe to assume that the novel coronavirus has entered every jail in the city.

Despite the threat posed by the virus, few people have been discharged from the Tombs these last few weeks. Legal aid organizations, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society, have managed to secure the release of 18 people within the complex, all of whom were being held on civil charges, and many of whom were considered to be in high-risk categories because of their age or underlying medical conditions. But for most of those incarcerated in the MDC aren’t going anywhere.

“Everyone in here is unmoneyed and unrepresented,” said Christopher O’Neil, who has been incarcerated in the Tombs since December 10, 2019. “We’re here for either being in contempt of court or willfully not paying a violation.” He added, “With the conditions in here being like they are, trust me, if we had the money to pay, any of us would pay it in one day,”

Conditions at the facility have been degrading for years, which is why the City announced in 2018 that the MDC would be demolished and replaced with a new facility. Then, on March 6, conditions took another turn for the worse when a flood caused extensive damage throughout much of the complex.

The men report that the new conditions are squalid.

“There is dirt and grime everywhere. It’s black—dark black. You can run your hand through it on any surface and leave a streak in the black. And it smells like mold,” said O’Neil. He and the seven others added that the ventilation system is broken, causing them to breathe in irritating dust that stirs up coughing fits. All the people held at the MDC interviewed by The Nation report that the unit smells like it has just been painted, despite the dirt and dust.

“We’ve been inhaling fumes from the paint,” said Daniel Scott, who also asked that his name be changed to avoid reprisal from correction officers. “We felt lightheaded and dizzy.” The DOC confirmed that several housing units were repainted after the March 6 flood in an effort to make them habitable and said that the paint is nontoxic.

Of additional concern to the men is their inability to wash themselves—a crucial means of preventing the spread of the virus.

“We weren’t able to even shower the first three days we were here,” said Scott. The reason, he said: The showers were broken.

“Some of us, including me, tried to use the sinks in our cells to shower,” said Kelvin Williams, using a pseudonym to avoid reprisals. The sinks, however, were mostly broken, he said. And soap has become scarce.

“I remember a captain saying, ‘You guys are lucky: You have the last box of soap in the building,’” recalled Marvin Harris, a 28-year-old man from Brooklyn and yet another person who asked not to be identified by his real name for fear of blowback.

Moreover, the broken sinks in the cells are the only source of water for men outside of mealtimes, when correction officers bring in refillable containers. The men describe the water as non-potable and full of rust. The “water is completely brown,” said Williams. “You definitely can’t drink it.”

According to the DOC, there are no places where people in custody are housed where they do not have access to sinks, soap (including their own personal bars), and water.

But eight men with whom The Nation spoke said that access to fresh water remains an ongoing problem. “We have to keep fighting for water,” said Scott. “Sometimes they won’t give us water for an extended period, like nine hours when we’re locked in for the night…. And with the virus you know we need to stay hydrated.”

Phillip Desgranges, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union and member of the New York City Bar Association’s Task Force on Mass Incarceration, described reports about conditions inside the MDC as “very worrisome.” He added that “they may be considered a constitutional harm,” which means that the conditions inside parts of the MDC may be so bad that they constitute a violation of the inmates’ constitutional rights, specifically the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

“We take the safety and well-being of those in our custody seriously and we are investigating these claims,” says Peter Thorne, the deputy commissioner of public information at the DOC. “The DOC is doing everything we can to safely and humanely house people in our custody amid the broader Covid-19 crisis. We have made tremendous efforts to increase social distancing throughout our facilities, and escalated our hygiene and sanitation protocols in accordance with guidance from the city’s Department of Health.”

Nonetheless, conditions inside the MDC continue to deteriorate. When The Nation last spoke to Martinez, in early April, he reported that the heating had gone off for reasons that the COs could not explain, and the unit had become freezing cold.

“The COs get upset because some of the guys that have left, we steal the sheets that they were given to double up,” Martinez said. “And they say, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that, you can’t do that.’ And we say ‘Yo, man, it’s freezing in here.”

The COs’ answer? “Well, you’ll just have to deal with that. You just have to deal with that.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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