//  7/18/18  //  Commentary

When Paul Manafort was sent to jail to await trial after violating the conditions of his house arrest, President Trump tweeted that this “tough sentence” was “Very unfair!” Trump then (sarcastically) commented he “[d]idn’t know Manafort was the head of the Mob. What about Comey and Crooked Hillary and all of the others?”

Cut to this very unfair “sentence” of Paul Manafort. He had been housed at Northern Neck Regional Jail, but was recently transferred to the Alexandria Detention Center on court order. Manafort’s lawyers opposed the transfer, citing “concerns about his safety and, more importantly, the challenges he will face in adjusting to a new place of confinement and the changing circumstances of detention two weeks before trial.” District Court Judge T.S. Ellis called this a “surprising and confusing” turn of events. Manafort’s counsel, after all, had recently complained that the detention center (located 100 miles from DC) was too far away and that its location had “severely impacted the ability of the defense to effectively prepare” for trial.

Around the time that Manafort’s lawyers made this peculiar argument to Judge Ellis, they also reported that he was being held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day to ensure his safety. But shortly thereafter, prosecutors revealed that on phone calls, Manafort had told people he was being treated like a “VIP.” As the prosecutors explained in their motion: “Among the unique privileges Manafort enjoys at the jail are a private, self-contained living unit, which is larger than other inmates’ units, his own bathroom and shower facility, his own personal telephone and his own workspace to prepare for trial.” The prosecutors’ motion also revealed that Manafort wasn’t required to wear a prison uniform, that he has a personal laptop, and that he developed a “workaround” to send emails.

Not fair, indeed. Not fair at all.

And while we’re on the topic of “Very unfair!” consider the following:

At the same time Manafort’s attorneys were driving 100 miles from DC to see their client, some in federal custody were prohibited from seeing their attorney under any circumstances. Despite President Trump’s belief that immigrants detained at the border should be turned back “with no Judges or Court Cases,” all noncitizens have due process rights—including access to an attorney for immigration proceedings. Unlike in criminal cases, the government is not obligated to pay for such representation, which means that many immigrants (sometimes even young children) represent themselves in front of immigration judges. But even immigrants with representation have had trouble seeing their lawyers. Not because their attorneys had to drive more than an hour—like Manafort’s attorneys—but because the government actively stood in the way. Attorneys in both California and Oregon were repeatedly denied access to their clients in federal detention, and so the ACLU sought and received a temporary restraining order to force the government to allow the attorneys access to their clients in person or by phone. In fact, the federal judge who granted the temporary restraining order in California ordered the government to allow the attorneys access to their clients and to halt deportation proceedings until the attorneys could meet with their clients.  

The DOJ attorney who argued against the ACLU’s lawsuit claimed the problem was that conditions at the detention center were “evolving” and “fluid.” These “evolving” conditions are due to a massive transfer of immigrant detainees into the prison system—a move that has reportedly caused chaos at federal prison centers. ICE is transferring around 1,600 detainees into five federal prison, asserting that it needs to use these facilities because of a “surge in illegal border crossings” and because of DOJ’s zero-tolerance policy. Federal inmates are reporting frustration with overcrowding; prison staff are overworked; and at the Victorville, California detention center, workers report that they “cannot take care of these inmates.” Infectious diseases, like scabies and chickenpox, have broken out. ICE claims the use of the federal prisons for detention is necessary to enforce immigration laws.

Of course, the zero tolerance immigration policy is not the only move by the President contributing to a decline in federal prison conditions. The Trump administration recently rolled back Obama-era protections for transgender prisoners. It now houses inmates according to the gender assigned them at birth, making exceptions only “in rare cases.” This decision weakens Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) protections by placing transgender people at immediate risk of sexual assault—and this population already reports physical and sexual assault rates 6 to 10 times higher than non-transgender prisoners.

The reality of this Bureau of Prisons (BOP) decision is that more transgender prisoners will be placed in solitary confinement for their own safety (as an alternative to, say, placing a transgender woman in general population at an all-male facility). Transgender prisoners are often placed in solitary confinement as a solution to the problem of sex-segregated prisons and the increased dangers they face. The horrible effects of solitary confinement on individuals are well documented, and are widely considered torture, but there is a stark difference between Manafort’s solitary confinement (which includes an en suite bathroom and workspace) and the daily conditions for many transgender prisoners under the Trump BOP’s new regulations.

Consider also the detainees locked up in Guantanamo Bay who have been held for as long as 16 years without being charged. The Trump administration recently argued in court that it has the authority to indefinitely hold people at Gitmo without charge or trial.

In the U.S., there are many “very unfair” situations involving prisons and jails. But Trump’s policies are making them much, much worse. His zero tolerance immigration policy has skyrocketed the population of detentions centers and federal prisons, leading to infectious diseases, strained security, and denial of access to legal representation. Protections for transgender prisoners have been stripped away, leaving inmates vulnerable. DOJ attorneys have resumed arguing that prisoners detained at Guantanamo can (and should) be detained indefinitely. There is no denying that Paul Manafort deserves a fair trial, access to his attorneys, and safe conditions. But so do the other 183,981 people held in the federal prisons. President Trump should channel his desire for fairness towards remedying some of the abysmal prison and jail conditions that he and his administration have brought on.


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