Inmates Held Pre-Trial for Misdemeanors in Overcrowded Prison in Puerto Rico Denied Water, Unable to Flush Toilet or Shower For a Week After Hurricane

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From [HERE] Like much of Puerto Rico, the island’s only federal detention center ­— the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Guaynabo — lost running water and electricity when Hurricane Maria devastated the island last September. But it was the prison’s response to the disaster and its treatment of prisoners that one inmate and his lawyer are claiming was both unconscionable and a “grave violation of basic human rights.”

A motion filed in March in Puerto Rico’s federal district court includes two first-person accounts from Milton Pinilla, a pre-trial detainee at MDC Guaynabo, describing the events in one unit of the prison following the storm: a week of horrific conditions, dehydration, illness, and fear, all punctuated by a night of violence and humiliation at the hands of prison guards.

Pinilla, along with the approximately 120 other inmates in unit 2C, was kept locked in his cell for nearly seven days following the storm. During that time he was given limited drinking water, was unable to flush the toilet in his cell, and couldn’t shower.

“Living conditions in my cell were not fit for human habitation” wrote Pinilla, who shared a two person, 7’X10’ cell with minimal ventilation. “The smell and stench was so intoxicating that I no longer had the urge to eat.”

He suffered from diarrhea and vomiting, likely the result of unsanitary conditions in the prison, and was terrified to use the toilet for fear of it overflowing. He saw another inmate who had passed out being carried from the prison on a stretcher. At night the cell became so dark that he could not see his hand in front of his face.

On the third day of lockdown, the inmates were briefly released from their cells, and their toilets were flushed. They were allowed to call their families, though with phone lines down on the island, few were able to speak to loved ones. They were also handed a memo assuring them that they would be given bottled water and have their toilets flushed after every meal. But this turned out to be a lie: their toilets were not flushed for the remainder of their time at MDC Guaynabo, nor was Pinilla given more drinking water.

Pinilla’s requests for cleaning supplies or anything to cover the toilet in his cell were also ignored or denied. Guards appeared unconcerned with the well-being of the inmates. Officers even refused to go near his cell due to the stench, claimed Pinilla, and as time went on, he became aware that the “negligence and abusive treatment was beginning to agitate the inmates.”

But these events eventually proved less egregious than the abuse that followed.

“Costco type” indictments

MDC Guaynabo, located just outside of San Juan, was established in 1993 with the primary purpose of housing detainees awaiting trial in federal court. Like 97 percent of inmates at MDC Guaynabo, Milton Pinilla has not been convicted of a crime, and is meant to be presumed innocent. He is charged with non-violent offenses.

While an audit of the prison from 2016 lists the designed capacity of the prison at 849 inmates, the current population listed on the prison’s website is more than one and half times that, at 1,406. According to Pinilla’s lawyer Frank Inserni, in order to accommodate so many prisoners the facility often places three inmates in cells designed for two, with one inmate sleeping on the floor near the toilet.

In his informative motion, Inserni argues that the experience of inmates after Hurricane Maria is part of a larger pattern of poor prison conditions, mistreatment, and overcrowding at MDC Guaynabo, and can be traced to a change in sentencing policies that now allow for “Costco type” indictments of large groups. Previous policies limited indictments to just 10 defendants.

“The Court can take notice that the majority of the large drug trafficking indictments (50, 95, 121 defendants) during the past six to eight years have included a myriad of defendants that are addicts, lookouts, wives, and peripheral individuals dragged into the addiction and drug selling economy that are better served through drug treatment programs rather than prisons,” wrote Inserni.

Having large numbers of people locked up who are not a threat to public safety can exacerbate problems during an emergency, such as limited resources and logistical challenges.

“What should happen, ideally, is that you triage who is in there in advance” said Tania Tetlow, a law professor at Tulane University who wrote about the criminal justice system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “If there are people there on a non-violent offense, who haven’t faced trial and just couldn’t make bond, you let them go. That’s just in everybody’s interest.”

This is not the first time that prisoners have been left in dire circumstances after a hurricane — and it likely won’t be the last. As The Marshall Project reported last September, most of Puerto Rico’s territorial and federal prisons are built on or around flood zones, putting the inmates in perpetual danger.

Much like the egregious conditions faced by MDC inmates, following Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish Prison inmates faced chest-level high water, were abandoned by many of the deputies, and were forced to break windows in their cells and hang signs outside pleading for help. After Hurricane Harvey, it was reported that inmates in Houston were given limited amounts of drinking water and faced other horrifying conditions. 

A week of terror

On the sixth day of lockdown at MDC Guaynabo, water began to flow into the cells on the first floor of the unit. With no idea where the water was coming from or whether it would stop, the inmates began to panic. Some started to kick on the doors of their cell, and in one cell a small glass window shattered. When the guards noticed the broken glass, they entered the cell, “brutally punching and beating on both the inmates that occupied said cell.”

“Later I would see the bruised face of the inmate who was housed in the cell where the flooding came from,” Pinilla wrote.

In the meantime, inmates in other cells gathered the flood water in buckets to use to flush their toilets. This caused toilets to overflow. The toilet water containing human waste mixed with the flood waters and began to spread into neighboring cells.

That evening, while most inmates were asleep or resting, officers burst into their cells and demanded that the prisoners lie face down on the ground. “Because every [cell] floor was covered in feces and urine infested water most inmates were hesitant,” wrote Pinilla. Those who refused or stalled were either pepper-sprayed or shot at close range with rubber bullets. Pinilla saw an inmate bleeding through his shirt, and later was shown the scars from those shots.

Once Pinilla and his cellmate were forced face-down in the dirty water, guards zip-tied their hands behind their backs. Pinilla’s cellmate, a man in his sixties who was sick and blind out of one eye, was “shown no mercy.” Another inmate’s zip-tie was pulled so tight that his hands began to turn blue. When one of the guards noticed and attempted to remove it, the scissors would not fit between the inmate’s wrist and the zip-tie, and the guard was forced to cut into the skin on his wrist. The inmate sobbed, while officers found rags to stop the bleeding. Other inmate requests for medical attention were ignored or denied.

The prisoners were then sat on the ground next to one another in the middle of the unit puddled with the filthy water. Guards had their weapons pointed at the inmates, and the warden gave what Pinilla described as a “rude and degrading” speech, in which he called them parasites and said their families had died in the storm. Many of the inmates had been pulled out of their cells in just their boxers, which had become wet and see-through. Female guards were present during the incident, which added to the humiliation. [MORE]