The coronavirus has come for the Metropolitan Correctional Center, and it arrived in the worst possible place.
As a 69-year-old man who lived in the storied federal jail for most of 2019, I can tell you that social distancing—even if it was a concept that anybody inside the facility’s walls understood—would be virtually impossible to establish.
At the MCC, prisoners in all but one unit are housed two to a cell—a 70-or-so-square foot cell. They use the same toilet there, and of course gather for meals, socializing, and television watching in close quarters. That’s bad enough! But making matters worse, the prisoner with the coronavirus was housed in 11 South, the facility’s only dormitory unit. Which means that the prisoner who contracted the virus lived in exceptionally close quarters with other prisoners compared to the housing arrangement in the other units.
Each area consists of 24 bunk beds, in two rows of 12, one shower, one shitter, and one urinal. The distance between those bunk beds is just enough for an inmate to stand. The unit itself contains six of these 24-man tiers. And all these guys hang out together—never with a six-foot radius of privacy—with not a lot to do all day save play chess, or cards, or dominoes, and bullshit each other.
In theory, pretrial inmates (which is what 11 South is comprised of) are not supposed to work jobs or have any contact with sentenced prisoners (who at MCC, reside in unit 5 South, called the cadre unit) because they pose a threat to sentenced inmates in a way that other sentenced inmates don’t. They have not been evaluated as thoroughly, and because their final outcome is in doubt, pretrial inmates are assumed to be more volatile and less predictable than sentenced prisoners. I can tell you from personal experience that almost all the blood shed at MCC was spilled in pretrial units. Regardless, pretrial inmates from 11 South work in the kitchen and on suicide watch while many prisoners serving sentences in the prison, and whom federal guidelines require to have jobs, don't work.
There's still an idea lingering somewhere out there that lock-ups are safe spaces during an outbreak because prisoners can't leave. But they do, when their sentences are up, and people—correctional officers, lawyers and visitors (who are permitted physical contact, like hugs, with prisoners)— come and go every day. The prisoners, of course, have no choice but to stay inside. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has even ended most transfers between prisons to try and keep the virus from spreading.
But once it's inside a lock-up, like MCC, good luck keeping six feet away—or finding any hand sanitizer.
The head of the union who represents guards there says that the prison has done almost nothing to safeguard its staff, or inmates. This is not something that surprises me. In fact, I’d be amazed if the prison actually performed any of its duties in an efficient manner. That’s just the reality there.
The 10 other prisoners who'd been in the same area as the one with the virus are being quarantined on 11 South, presumably with each other, and no inmates are being brought to or taken off of the floor. All staff who'd been on the floor at any point in the last 14 days, and who assuredly went to other floors after that, are being tested, for what that's worth. The idea that this one inmate somehow got tested and was isolated before infecting anyone else is about as likely as the reader winning $100 million in the state lottery tomorrow.
I wasn’t one of those inmates who complained about the conditions at MCC. We were fed adequately, given a halfway-decent mat to sleep on, and a toilet to crap in. I liked a lot of the staff and officers. And as far as rodents and roaches go? Hey! I’m a New Yorker. That stuff doesn’t bother me like it did some of the other inmates.
But the inefficiency with which the facility is run? That’s a completely different story. A prison designed to hold fewer than 450 inmates now has more than 700. And despite a hiring bonus and extra pay for officers there, they can’t keep the place staffed without mandatory overtime and “augmentation,” which is a fancy term for making other prison employees work as guards when needed.
No officer ever confided in me what a well-run prison MCC truly was. Conversely, many told me that “this is the worst prison I’ve ever worked in.” In the only positive opinion ventured by an officer, he recalled that the prison had been a model facility back in the 1970s, with carpeting on the floor, windows on the cells instead of bars, and T-bone steaks for the inmates’ dinner on Saturday night. Of course, that was in the context of what a shithole it is now.
After Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide a federal judge in Manhattan called on the attorney general, who oversees the prison system, to publicly review conditions at the MCC including “chronic understaffing, subpar living conditions, violence, gang activity, racial tension and the prevalence of drugs and contraband” all “worsened by the absence of necessary services, including meaningful mental health and drug rehabilitation, not to mention adequate heat and hot water.”
The sad truth is that MCC federal prison is an embarrassment to the United States of America and the Federal Bureau of Prisons alike. The bureaucratic nightmare should either be closed or its myriad problems actually investigated and addressed.
In the meantime, preventing the spread of coronavirus should have been their No. 1 priority. But that ship sailed a while back. Now all they can do is lock everybody down, feed them “bag nasties” or bologna and cheese sandwiches, and hope the disease doesn’t spread like wildfire.
Like country like prison, I guess.