Federal Court Orders Deadlines For Long-Delayed Jail Repairs

A federal court has set deadlines for the City Department of Correction to repair the non-working ventilation systems in the City’s jails, granting a motion by The Legal Aid Society's Prisoners’ Rights Project (PRP) in Benjamin v. Horn, PRP’s class action about living conditions in the City jails.

The new order, issued yesterday by the The Honorable Harold Baer, Jr., of the federal court in Manhattan, came after the Department of Correction failed to comply with a 2001 order to ensure that the jail ventilation systems were in working order, and falsely certified its compliance with that order.

In his 2001 opinion, Judge Baer found that

A lack of adequate ventilation in a detention facility can contribute to the transmission of air borne diseases, a problem which, is magnified for detainees who have compromised immune systems as a result of HIV infection or suffer from asthma or other respiratory ailments. . . . Inadequate ventilation also undermines efforts to maintain minimum levels of sanitation within the Department's facilities, providing an environment where mildew, mold, rust, and bacteria can flourish.

To correct the widespread ventilation failures, Judge Baer ordered the Department of Correction, to restore and maintain the ventilation systems in working order, and certify having done so annually. The Department certified that the systems were in 100% working order in 2004 and acknowledged only a few minor deficiencies in 2005 and 2006, but a survey of jails by the federal court’s monitor showed continued widespread malfunctions and damage, including control systems that did not work, ventilation units that had no power, an area where the ventilation had been completely disabled by a ceiling renovation, etc. As a result, many areas in the jails had no air circulation at all.

Once these facts were exposed, the Department of Correction did not dispute its failure to repair or replace the ventilation systems, though it never explained either its failure to act or its submission of false certifications to the court. Instead it engaged a consultant to develop a plan of correction. Judge Baer’s order sets deadlines based on the Department’s own plan, requires regular progress reports, and sets fines for unexcused failures to meet the deadlines. (The deadlines extend to 2011.) The City opposed the entry of any order.

“It is disturbing that it has taken seven years to get to this point, and even more disturbing that the City concealed its noncompliance for so long with false certifications to the court,” said John Boston, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project, which represents the prisoners. “However, we are pleased to see that these necessary repairs, which should have been completed years ago, will finally be done.”

The Benjamin litigation is handled by Boston, Veronica Vela, and Dale Wilker.