By Nick Pinto
Feb 22, 2019
A leading New York civil rights law firm filed a lawsuit today in federal court in Brooklyn against the warden of the Metropolitan Detention Center, seeking a class action that would represent the more than 1,000 people housed in the federal jail’s West Building during the week it went without power or adequate heat in January and February of this year.
Today’s complaint was filed on behalf of two men locked up at MDC during the crisis.
David Scott, a 60-year-old Queens man, was awaiting his trial at MDC when the power went out, and he spent a week with only underwear, a T-shirt, socks, and a short-sleeve cotton jumpsuit to wear as vents blew cold air into his unlit cell, according to the complaint. The lawsuit alleges that Scott repeatedly sought medical attention for numbness in his hand, a fungal infection on his skin, and an abscess, but was ignored, even days after the judge presiding in his case specifically ordered jail staff to treat his conditions.
The other plaintiff, Jeremy Cerda, a 25-year-old Queens man, spent the week of the blackout on the jail’s intake unit, where he had recently arrived after failing to find employment, one of the conditions of his bond. Cerda suffers from depression and anxiety, according to the complaint, and after five days in a dark and unheated cell, with only brown and stinking water to drink and his toilet frequently not functioning, he began to think about hurting himself.
“Warden [Herman] Quay left more than a thousand men isolated in dark and freezing conditions for nearly a week, with limited access to medical care and hot food and water, without attorney or family visitation, and cut off from access to the CorrLinks telephone and email systems,” the lawsuit alleges. “Quay’s failings were legion.”
Not only did Quay fail to take steps to improve conditions in the jail, according to the lawsuit, he and his team repeatedly lied about them. In so doing, the lawsuit claims, Quay violated the Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights of the men detained at the jail.
The suit is brought by Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, which has a long history of litigation surrounding conditions in the city jails on Rikers Island. A class action suit brought by the firm, along with the Legal Aid Society, Ropes and Dunn, and ultimately the U.S. Department of Justice, led to a 2015 consent decree mandating sweeping reforms at Rikers.
“Wardens must provide the people in their jails with a minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities—adequate safety, food, warmth, exercise, hygiene, and medical care," the lawsuit states. “These are some of the most basic conditions of confinement the Constitution requires. These standards define a civilized society. While jails need not be comfortable, they must provide decent, humane conditions for the people who live there.”
The Bureau of Prisons, which runs the Metropolitan Detention Center, declined to comment on the suit.
Today’s lawsuit joins another one filed three weeks ago by the Federal Defenders of New York in the Eastern District over the jail’s refusal during the crisis to allow people to speak to their lawyers. The Federal Defenders are asking for a court-appointed special master to oversee the jail’s treatment of people in its custody. Conditions at the jail have also been the subject of numerous other court hearings in recent weeks, including one in which Judge Analise Torres personally toured the facility with a court reporter, documenting the inhumane conditions she found there.
Under public pressure and at the urging of legislators, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General has also begun an investigation into how Quay and other jail officials handled the power outage, but given the long history of the Inspector General issuing sternly-worded reports about conditions at MDC with little apparent improvement, many suspect that the best hope for real change lies with the courts.