Brooklyn jail crisis is a civil rights issue

Recent events in a Brooklyn federal jail revealed detainees held in subhuman and illegal conditions, without necessary medicine, heat, light and even water. But the Metropolitan Detention Center detainees were also lucky, because it is located in New York City, where public service attorneys are attentive, families are nearby to protest and draw media attention to the conditions and where a judge even paid a visit.

As others are pointing out, the substandard conditions in federal jails is not an isolated problem. “This is chronic,” Eric Young, president of the union that represents federal prison workers told NBC. Issues range from heat to broken elevators to mold. In 2013, lawyers sued the state of California and forced the relocation of inmates to other several jails because convicted inmates were knowingly being exposed to the fungus that causes Valley Fever. Many suffered, some died.

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The way we’re treating detainees and prisoners is not only a humanitarian crisis, it is also a civil rights issue. The vast majority of inmates and detainees are people of color, nationwide. In 2016, blacks represented one third of the sentenced prison population (but 12 percent of the U.S. adult population); Hispanics represented nearly one quarter of inmates (and 16 percent of the adult population).

Most of those in being held in jail are also poor, some may have violated parole, or perhaps they are facing multiple charges across several jurisdictions and bail is denied, but the most common reason is money. Their families do not have the funds to have them released pending trial. What this means is that poverty is the main reason people are in jail.

Remember that many of these people are simply being charged — they are presumed innocent; they have not yet had their day in court. In Brooklyn and elsewhere, they are being treated worse than criminals.

Whether someone is detained on charges or convicted and serving a prison sentence, everyone has legal and constitutional rights to lawyers. But when the Metropolitan Detention Center denied attorneys access to the building, they violated the 6th Amendment, which guarantees a defendant the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to be tried by an impartial jury, the right to be informed of the charges, the right to confront and call witnesses and the right to an attorney.

The cracks in the prison system are never unique to one facility. One can only scratch the surface of any prison, jail, detention center to uncover the same problems over and over: disease, abuse by other prisoners and correctional staff, unsanitary conditions, poor food, no heat or too much heat, dirty water — the endless litany is limited only by the complaints dared to be voiced by the incarcerated.

While NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) sent a truck with blankets and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) spoke out against the conditions, there’s been nary a word from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone MORE or the current administration about what happened in Brooklyn.

There has been no acknowledgment from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is housed under the U.S. Department of Justice, about the disaster. Where is the accountability?

The only ones speaking out are families and loved one of the detainees, correctional staff who worked partially while on furlough in the cold and dark; the attorneys; and, of course, the detainees, who could be heard banging on the icy windows in protest.

I can’t help but draw a connection between the disgrace at the Metropolitan Detention Center and how undocumented migrants are being treated in hundreds of ICE detention centers across this country: in freezing conditions without proper clothing or blankets, separating children from their families and failing to provide for their most basic needs and subjecting girls and women to humiliating and abusive treatment. They, too, are people of color.

The administration treats with indifference and scorns non-guilty detainees, incarcerated criminals and Central American families who seek legal asylum at the borders. The message is unequivocal: We do not acknowledge nor care about your humanity.

Linda Aristondo is an attorney in the New York tri-state area and an Encore public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.