Inmates at a New York federal prison went on a hunger strike after visitation times were canceled due to staff shortages.
Prisoners in a unit of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) protested the decision by refusing to eat their breakfast and lunch on Monday, reports The New York Times. The MCC and Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn house about 1,600 prisoners.
The number of protesters is unknown, but federal public defender Sarah Baumgartel told The Times all of them reside in the same unit.
The partial government shutdown is the cause of the shortages, according to the Times. Cancellation of visitation meant inmates were unable to see their loved ones or legal counsel. The latter is a serious issue since some inmates at the facility are in custody while awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime.
Executive Director of the Federal Defenders of New York David Patton says the Brooklyn facility’s visitation stopped on January 4, and the MCC visits weren't allowed for three days over the past few weeks.
"Attorney visitation has been sporadic and often shut down or canceled which means that attorneys can't meet with their clients," Patton told The Gothamist.
Securing medical care is another problem for inmates. One prosecutor told a judge counsels were “informed — we don’t have any reason to dispute this — that because of the shutdown, there are issues with prescribing medication.”
American Federation of Government Employees President Serene Gregg told The Times sick inmates looking for care were returned to their cells because “nobody is there to see them.”
“We are providing inadequate medical care at this point. We don’t have the medical providers to see them,” she added.
An anonymous MCC spokesperson pushed back against the Times' reporting and told The Gothamist the shutdown isn’t responsible for the shortages.
He downplayed the protest and claimed prisoners ate their dinner when staff told them broken elevators were responsible for the canceled visits. The source said the elevators are being repaired, and Patton’s claims about the length of cancellations and lack of medical care are false. He claimed the MCC only canceled visits for a few hours on one day.
Manhattan federal court representative Edward Friedland said his office would be meeting with the wardens of the prisons regarding the problems.
“The court is obviously concerned with the impact that the shutdown is having on defense counsels’ ability to see their clients,” Friedland said.
Patton was able to provide evidence to support his claims about the reason behind the lack of access to inmates. He furnished an email from an MCC attorney announcing the cancellation of visitation.
“Due to staff shortages secondary to the shutdown, legal visiting at MDC Brooklyn is currently suspended today, January 14, 2018,” it read. "We regret the inconvenience and will notify you immediately once visiting resumes."
Patton said he believes the prison system is failing to do the bare minimum.
"We’re not talking about fancy luxury items here,” he told The Times. “We’re talking about being able to converse with your attorney when you haven’t yet been convicted of a crime. We’re talking about being able to see your children or your spouse or your parents. This is the absolute lowest baseline we should expect of a government when it detains people and assumes responsibility for their well-being.”
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