NEW YORK — Federal inmates awaiting trial in New York have refused meals after being denied visits with their families and lawyers due to staffing shortages worsened by the partial government shutdown, defense attorneys said Tuesday.
David Patton, the head of the federal defender office in New York, said a hunger strike had occurred on at least one unit of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, a facility that houses some 800 detainees. But it was not clear when the hunger strike began or if it was ongoing.
“If the government is going to prosecute and detain people, they need to do it in a constitutional manner and that includes access to attorneys and sufficient medical care,” Patton said. “Right now that’s not happening.”
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons said in an email Tuesday that it had “suspended” visitation at facility but that it has “since resumed.”
The agency did not comment on a hunger strike at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, which was reported Monday by The New York Times, but said a strike was not occurring at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. It said visitation had been curtailed at the Brooklyn lockup due to “problems with the elevators.”
Patton said the jails already had been experiencing staffing shortages but added that a higher than usual number of correctional officers are calling in sick because they have not been receiving pay checks during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
“They rely heavily, even in normal financial times, on staff to put in overtime,” Patton said. “For understandable reasons, if people are not getting paid they’re not going to work overtime.”
Correctional officers around the country face a similar plight. Two correctional officers filed suit against the government last week in Washington, D.C., alleging they were being forced into “involuntary servitude.”
“It’s getting worse every day,” said Michael Kator, the officers’ attorney. “It’s going to get to the point where it’s untenable.”
The government has acknowledged the strain on the employees but asked for more time to respond to the lawsuit.
Defense attorneys said they were considering new bail applications based on the deteriorating conditions.
Sabrina Shroff, a federal defender, asked a federal judge in New York late Tuesday to allow one of her clients an additional three weeks to surrender to begin serving a three-month prison sentence, citing the confusion caused by the shutdown in her request.