DAVID GREENE, HOST:
More than a hundred female inmates who were given sentences in federal prison faced a different fate. They were instead held for years in two windowless rooms in a detention center in New York City, and the conditions there have been found to violate international standards for the treatment of prisoners. From member station WNYC, Alec Hamilton reports.
ALEC HAMILTON, BYLINE: The problem in Brooklyn actually started in Connecticut, in what was the only federal prison for women in the Northeast. But with the prison population across the country increase nearly 10-fold over the last 40 years, and men's prisons overflowing, in December 2012, the Bureau of Prisons decided to move the women out of the Danbury prison and move men in. The women were sent to the Metropolitan Detention Center, a jail in Brooklyn, until a new prison could be built. The move was supposed to last 18 months, but nearly three years later, many remain stuck at MDC.
RAMONA BRANT: We felt like we were animals that was taken to a pound and then that was it. They just closed the door and left us.
HAMILTON: Fifty-three-year-old Ramona Brant was granted clemency by President Obama in February. Before that, she spent the first 19 years of a life sentence for a nonviolent drug charge at Danbury. She says it was OK, there were activities, jobs, access to the outdoors - until March 2014, when she and the others were moved to the jail.
BRANT: Little by little they started filling it up, and before we knew it, it was a hundred and twenty women in this one room, and it was unbearable.
HAMILTON: A report released by the National Association of Women Judges found conditions for the women at MDC violated both the American Bar Association standards and the United Nations standard minimum rules for treatment of prisoners. The judges said the women had no access to the outdoors, and inmates complained of being unable to get appropriate medical care, especially gynecological care. At least one inmate was visibly pregnant. The warden told the judges the Bureau of Prisons can't find doctors willing to work there.
David Patton is the executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York, the public defender service for people who can't afford a private attorney. He says his organization has had issues with the facility for years.
DAVID PATTON: There have been maggots in the food, urine-stained mattresses, dryers that vent into the sleeping area, a lack of fresh air and recreation.
HAMILTON: Unlike Danbury, which is a long-term prison, MDC is a detention center just meant to hold people while they await trial. David Fathi is the director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.
DAVID FATHI: Jails, like the MDCs, tend not to have the programming, the level of medical and mental health treatment, and a whole range of other services that you find in a prison.
HAMILTON: He points out federal courts have ruled that prisoners have the right to outdoor exercise.
FATHI: The Supreme Court has made clear that prison conditions that might be tolerable for a few weeks or even a couple of months can ripen into unconstitutionality if they go on for a sufficiently long period of time.
HAMILTON: Eighty-six-year-old Sister Megan Rice spent 13 months at MDC during her sentence for vandalizing a nuclear facility in Tennessee. She says without appropriate support, the women were denied any real shot at rehabilitation.
MEGAN RICE: They're meant to be given opportunities to grow, to leave the prison as more healed person.
HAMILTON: Neither the Bureau of Prisons, nor the Department of Justice, which oversees it, would talk on record about the conditions or the delay in returning the women to Connecticut. Meanwhile, the Danbury facility is finally ready. The bureau says they began transferring inmates back last month. For more than a hundred women sitting in two large rooms in Brooklyn, that move can't come fast enough. For NPR News, I'm Alec Hamilton in New York City.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE EVPATORIA REPORT SONG, "NAPTALAN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.