“The Guantanamo of New York City,” is just one nickname, among many, that has been applied to the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC).
Just how bad do conditions have to be for a federal prison, located in downtown Manhattan, to have earned a comparison to the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, where the military houses terrorists and criminal foreign nationals? Former inmates, lawyers, guards, and visitors to the facility have described a place that is undermanned, dirty, rodent and roach-infested, and overcrowded.
The MCC was opened in 1975 and is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, part of the Department of Justice (DOJ). It houses prisoners of all levels of security threats, from prisoners serving short sentences, up to people like the drug kingpin “El Chapo” and the gangster John Gotti Sr. The most recent MCC celebrity prisoner was the sex offender and multi-millionaire Jeffery Epstein, who committed suicide in his cell on August 10. The fact that Epstein was able to commit suicide while in the prison’s care raises questions about the conditions in which prisoners were housed.
There are several wings within the MCC, including a single female wing and seven general population wings. There is also a special housing unit (SHU), known as the 9-South wing and a supermax unit, known as 10-South. (RELATED: Bill Barr Removes Federal Prisons Chief After Jeffrey Epstein’s Death)
Allegations against the prison have ranged from poor pest control, up to outright charges of bribery and corruption among the prison guards. Lewis Kasman, a close associate of John Gotti Sr., told the NY Post that the MCC “had issues of corruption, with correction officers bringing in food or cellphones for wealthy people,” he also noted that Gotti was able to get food from outside of the prison: “he had Peter Luger’s whenever he wanted.”
The issues with corruption have continued since the days of John Gotti Sr. being housed at MCC. In 2018, a guard named Dario Quirumbay was charged with accepting money in exchange for smuggling contraband to the inmates, documents from the DOJ say: “Quirumbay, in exchange for approximately $1,000, agreed to smuggle two cellphones into the MCC and also provided an inmate with alcohol. Quirumbay met with a relative of one of the inmates in his custody to retrieve his cash bribe and two Apple iPhones, which Quirumbay then delivered to an inmate inside the MCC.”
Another guard was also charged with the same offense as Quirumbay. Victor Casado is alleged to have accepted bribes throughout 2016 and 2017 and smuggled “cellphones, alcohol, over-the counter medications, and food into the MCC.” He allegedly received more than 25,000 dollars in exchange for contraband from one inmate, as well as 5,000 dollars from another inmate.
Corruption is not the only problem facing the prison. The Gothamist published a scathing article last year on conditions on the inside, saying that prisoners face “filthy conditions, vermin infestations, substandard medical care, and violence and abuse at the hands of guards.”
Ricaro Stewart, a former inmate, told the Gothamist that the rats are “so big it seemed like they could only be in the sewer,” he continued, “but they wasn’t in the streets or the sewers … They were more like roommates.” Natural light is hard to find anywhere in the prison, as the windows are frosted over and hardly let light in, the temperature is poorly controlled and the facility is freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer, Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and told the Gothamist that, “You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was Iran or Russia … But in fact this gulag exists right here in lower Manhattan.”
Understaffing is such a serious problem that facility staff that aren’t correctional officers have been tasked with guarding prisoners, according to the Huffington Post. They also report that correction officers were “required to work as many as 70 hours a week.” In fact, overtime shifts of up to 16 hours are routine per the Associated Press. A hiring freeze is partly to blame for this crisis, as the federal prison system has lost “12 percent of its workforce from the start of the Trump administration through the end of 2018,” according to The Marshall Project. This issue of understaffing was not unknown to Attorney General Bill Barr as Barr had testified before Congress in April that “he was aware the Bureau of Prisons is dangerously understaffed,” according to The Daily Beast.
With the issues of corruption, cleanliness and understaffing plaguing the Metropolitan Correctional Center for decades now, is it any surprise that Jeffrey Epstein was able to find an opportunity to kill himself? The MCC has a lot of work to do if they want to avoid another accident.