A federal judge, citing complaints of dreadful conditions, near perpetual lockdowns and grave staffing shortages in a long-troubled federal jail in Brooklyn, refused Wednesday to order a man convicted in a drug case to be sent there while awaiting sentencing in March.
“It is imperative that those detained pursuant to the order of a court are treated humanely,” the judge, Jesse M. Furman of Federal District Court in Manhattan, wrote, adding that at least two other judges in recent years had refused to order that defendants be sent to the jail, the Metropolitan Detention Center, on similar grounds.
The hulking concrete center, known as the M.D.C., has served at least as a temporary home for many accused mobsters, terrorists and fraudsters and, in recent times, prominent defendants like Sam Bankman-Fried, R. Kelly and Ghislaine Maxwell.
The jail’s current population is about 1,544, according to its website. Most inmates are detained awaiting trial, and others, like the defendant in the case before Judge Furman, have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing. At the same time, the judge said, the M.D.C. is experiencing a severe shortage of correction officers: It is operating at only about 55 percent of its full staffing level, leaving a 10-to-one ratio of prisoners to officers, which the judge called untenable.
In the case before Judge Furman, the defendant, Gustavo Chavez, 70, pleaded guilty in November to possessing with intent to distribute drugs containing fentanyl. He now faces a potential sentence of up to 20 years.
Ordinarily, the judge wrote, Mr. Chavez, who had been free on bail, would have been subject to mandatory detention upon conviction because of the nature of his crime. But Judge Furman cited a provision that allowed him to find “exceptional reasons” for Mr. Chavez to remain free until sentencing.
“The court concludes that the conditions in the M.D.C. qualify as ‘exceptional reasons,’ justifying Chavez’s continuing release,” Judge Furman wrote.
Mr. Chavez’s lawyer, Andrew J. Dalack, of the city’s Federal Defenders office, called the judge’s decision thoughtful and thorough.
“Unless the Justice Department can address the chronic understaffing that drives these terrible conditions,” Mr. Dalack said, “the solution is simple: Fewer people should be detained, especially people like Mr. Chavez who clearly do not pose a threat to the public or a risk of flight.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department and runs the jail, had no comment on the judge’s decision. But it said it “makes every effort to ensure the physical safety of the individuals confined to our facilities through a controlled environment that is secure and humane.” The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which is prosecuting Mr. Chavez, had no comment.
The M.D.C. is the primary federal detention center in New York City in the wake of the Bureau of Prisons’ 2021 closure of its sister jail in Manhattan because of the poor conditions there. (The Manhattan jail was also where Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges. His death was ruled a suicide.)
In his 19-page decision, Judge Furman said the M.D.C.’s problems were longstanding: In the winter of 2019, as a polar vortex swept the East Coast, a power outage at the jail left inmates without light or heat for a full week, he wrote. (Last year, a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the people then housed there was settled for as much as $10 million.)
“It has gotten to the point that it is routine,” for federal judges in Manhattan and Brooklyn “to give reduced sentences to defendants based on the conditions of confinement in the M.D.C.,” Judge Furman wrote.
“Prosecutors no longer even put up a fight, let alone dispute that the state of affairs is unacceptable,” the judge added.
He said the jail’s inmates also “spend an inordinate amount of time” on lockdown, barred from leaving their cells for visits, calls, showers, classes or exercise.
“Confining inmates to their cells is, for at least some inmates, tantamount to solitary or near-solitary confinement,” Judge Furman wrote, “a practice that is increasingly viewed as inhumane.”
As of Thursday, the judge said, inmates at the M.D.C. had been on lockdown for much or all of the past three weeks after an assault on staff members. One defendant reported that he had been locked down for 137 days, or more than half of the 245 days he was held at the facility.
Judge Furman said the jail was also “notoriously and, in some instances, egregiously slow in providing necessary medical and mental health treatment to inmates.” He cited a case in which the jail had defied an order to transport an inmate for surgery to repair his cheek, which had been broken by an inmate in another facility.
Because of the delays, Judge Furman said, the defendant was told that his cheek would have to be re-broken before surgery because it had healed improperly.
Judge Furman observed that the federal government, which operates the M.D.C., has pushed to transfer control of Rikers Island away from the city because of the dire state of New York City’s jails.
“It is ironic, to say the least, that even as the executive branch fails to do what needs to be done to tend to its own house,” the judge wrote, it has “sought the appointment of an outside receiver to address ‘unsafe, dangerous and chaotic’ conditions in New York City’s jail system.”