Fed lawyer: COVID-19 at federal jail worse than reported

LARRY NEUMEISTER

NEW YORK (AP) — The true number of COVID-19 infections among inmates at Manhattan’s federal lockup was likely about seven times what the Bureau of Prisons has previously publicly reported, a government lawyer conceded Tuesday.

The bureau's website says five inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center have had the virus. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jean-David Barnea, representing the MCC's warden at a court hearing, said at least 34 inmates had been quarantined with symptoms because they were believed to have it.

Barnea made the revelation at a federal court hearing for a lawsuit that seeks court oversight over conditions for the nearly 800 inmates at the MCC. Despite conceding the number of virus cases was probably much higher than five, Barnea fought claims that the caseload could've been more than a few dozen.

“The MCC has been able to keep the epidemic under control at the prison,” he said, adding that no inmates have been found to have the virus since April 23.

The judge did not immediately rule.

Lawyers for inmates estimated that 75 to 150 inmates infected by the coronavirus went largely untreated. The lawyers said some were treated inhumanely when they were forced to sleep on concrete slabs in vermin-ridden cells sometimes used to house high-security inmates, including terrorists and financier Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself last summer as he awaited trial on sex trafficking charges.

Barnea said claims of that many infections were not credible.

“I take exception to the suggestion that the MCC did nothing here or that all of its responses have been deficient," he said.

He said there were some problems in the prison's response to COVID-19, including its failure to answer emailed complaints about illness from inmates, though he added that the issue “is not what caused the epidemic to run through the prison."

At least 45 prison employees have tested positive for the coronavirus and a dozen of them have not yet recovered, according to the Bureau of Prisons web site.

In court papers, lawyers for inmates called it a miracle that no inmates have died.

During Tuesday's hearing, attorney Arlo Devlin-Brown said the MCC had already corrected some of the deficiencies that endangered the health of inmates, but he urged the judge to formerly put the prison under court oversight.

He said the MCC only improved conditions because of the lawsuit.

“The MCC is a cruise ship. It’s a nursing home," Devlin-Brown said.

He said the first wave of the coronavirus had already swept through the prison without killing anyone and he worried about the next infection.

“It just takes one and that thing is going to explode again. And maybe they’re not going to be so lucky this time, unless they’re really doing things the right way," he said.

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