NEW YORK -- Prisoners with COVID-19 symptoms were neglected and ignored as the outbreak rippled through the federal detention center in Manhattan where financier Jeffrey Epstein died last summer, according to a doctor who performed a court-authorized inspection of the facility this month.
Social distancing was almost nonexistent in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where some inmates sleep on bunks within arm’s reach of each other, according to a report by Dr. Homer S. Venters, a former chief medical officer for New York City’s jails who toured the facility May 13.
The jail only let several prisoners get tested for the virus, Venters wrote. Five infected inmates were sent to a high-security housing unit that he said was “grossly inappropriate for the treatment of any ill inmates, and particularly those suffering from COVID-19."
The doctor also said the place was infested with mice, rats and roaches, reflecting a “basic disregard for sanitation and infection control,” and that some jail practices “actually promote a more rapid spread of COVID-19 inside the facility," boosting the likelihood of serious illness or death.
One panicked female inmate forced to share a cell with a woman with COVID-19 symptoms hung a sheet and feigned a suicide attempt to get transferred, Venters wrote.
Lawyers seeking to represent nearly 800 inmates hired the doctor to tour the detention center, with the approval of a federal judge, for a lawsuit seeking court oversight to free some prisoners and improve conditions. A hearing is scheduled for next week.
In court filings, the lawyers described a dirty jail where toilets shared by multiple inmates leak water, urine and feces while inmates struggle to find a bar of soap, clean clothing and a mask that fits.
The jail is where Epstein killed himself last summer while awaiting a sex trafficking trial. U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman, who would have presided over Epstein's trial, recently called it an “outrage" that the Bureau of Prisons hadn't fixed problems at the MCC that have only been amplified by the coronavirus.
Attorneys for the warden said in court filings that the judge should toss out the lawsuit.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesman declined comment, citing the litigation.
In a deposition, the jail's warden, Marti Licon-Vitale, agreed conditions in the special housing unit were worse than a cell but said isolating ill inmates took priority.
There would be fewer rodents, she said, if inmates disposed of their uneaten food properly.
Licon-Vitale said the MCC was slowed in its response to Attorney General William Barr’s directive to consider home confinement for inmates vulnerable to the coronavirus “because while COVID was an emergency, we also had the emergency of our staffing levels because staff were going out on sick leave.” At least 45 guards and others on a staff of about 200 fell ill, though 33 have recovered.
On its website, the Bureau of Prisons reports that all five MCC prisoners who tested positive for the coronavirus have recovered. Lawyers for inmates, however, said they believed 75 to 150 had been infected and the true number “will never be known because of the MCC’s failure to administer tests.”
Dr. Robert Beaudouin, the MCC’s medical director, said in a deposition that the discrepancy between so many staff members and so few could be blamed on the scarcity of testing.
“If you test more inmates, you are likely going to have more inmates positive," he said. He added that a newly acquired fast-testing COVID-19 machine wasn't used yet while the jail seeks a printer so the results appear “more professional and more official."
Venters in his report said the MCC ignored the high prevalence of COVID-19 symptoms among inmates and relied almost exclusively on temperature checks, rather than tests, to screen for the virus.
Several sick inmates were sent to high-security Special Housing Unit cells, where “they shivered through their fevers on concrete beds, while their pleas for blankets and clean drinking water were ignored," the lawyers wrote.
One prisoner with a high fever, Vinicius Andrade, was left on the concrete, shaking with no sheets, blanket or pillow as he coughed continuously for five days without anyone checking his chest or lungs, the lawyers said.
Antonio Smith lost 36 pounds (16 kilos) as he recovered in the same unit with no sense of taste or appetite, suffering from swollen and tearing eyes, a cough that produced a “clear sticky substance,” and constant sweating, the lawyers said.
Tiffany Days, 39, said in a court declaration that she asked Special Housing Unit guards for water but “they didn’t give me any. They told me to just drink from the sink in the cell." She said the sink was “full of spit — it is very dirty."
"We have to beg for gloves, cleaning supplies, and to see medical,” she said.
Fourteen inmates who filed sworn statements with the court describing severe fevers, body aches, coughs, chills and other symptoms said they waited days or weeks for care. Some didn't report symptoms for fear they’d be sent to the Special Housing Unit.
"It is a small miracle no one died,” the lawyers for inmates said.
“Even the exceedingly simple task of getting the inmates soap seems to be beyond the institution’s wherewithal,” the lawyers wrote.