A Puerto Rican federal inmate’s horrifying account of what the prison did after Hurricane Maria

Milton Pinilla describes a horrific week of violence, humiliation, and fear.

MDC Guaynabo allegedly tortured its inmates after Hurricane Katrina. (Credit: Nick Chrastil for ThinkProgress/ Diana Ofosu)
MDC Guaynabo allegedly tortured its inmates after Hurricane Katrina. (Credit: Nick Chrastil for ThinkProgress/ Diana Ofosu)

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — 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.

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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.”

The exterior of MDC Guaynabo. (Credit: Nick Chrastil for ThinkProgress).
The exterior of MDC Guaynabo. (Credit: Nick Chrastil for ThinkProgress).

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.

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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.

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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.

Police watch over prisoners from Orleans Parish Prison who were evacuated from their prison to the highway due to high water September 1, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Police watch over prisoners from Orleans Parish Prison who were evacuated from their prison to the highway due to high water September 1, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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.” 

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“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.

A screenshot of Pinilla's account.
A screenshot of Pinilla's account.

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.

“I began to choke and was forced to close my eyes and look away to catch my breath.”

One by one, inmates were taken to the mop facility room and sprayed in the face with a water hose, ostensibly to relieve the pain of the pepper spray. “The water was sprayed directly into my face and caused my glasses to fall off,” Pinilla recalled in his written statement. “I began to choke and was forced to close my eyes and look away to catch my breath.”

Pinilla was placed back in his cell soaking wet with his hands still zip-tied. The ties weren’t released until hours later.

“That night I had no dry clothes to sleep in and slept naked underneath my bed sheet,” he wrote.

The next morning Pinilla was woken, told to put on his wet clothes, and he, along with the rest of the inmates in unit 2C, were transferred to a federal prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi. There, they were eventually given bottled water and a sandwich. They had not been fed in more than 24 hours.

“They usually get away with it”

The motion claims that Pinilla’s account fully coincides with other written narratives of other MDC Guaynabo inmates. A report by San Juan-based Inter News Service, relying on anonymous interviews with inmates, also corroborates Pinilla’s account. The report claims that inmates have compiled a list of the 42 prisoners who were injured in the incident, and another list of approximately 30 guards who were responsible.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) told ThinkProgress that it does not comment on specific inmates’ complaints, and it would not say whether an internal investigation of the allegations has been initiated. BOP also said it “maintains standardized emergency plans for response to  emergency situations and crises” and “closely monitors and evaluates each unique emergency situation and assesses how to best ensure the safety of staff, inmates and the public.”

BOP did not provide specific details on the plan that was in place at MDC Guaynabo in anticipation of Maria, or whether prison staff adhered to that plan. Shortly after the hurricane struck, BOP posted a statement regarding MDC Guaynabo on their website, claiming that the staff and the inmates at the institution were safe. “While conditions are challenging, the situation is stable,” they wrote.

Streets in the Guaynabo suburb are flooded after Hurricane Maria made landfall, September 21, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Streets in the Guaynabo suburb are flooded after Hurricane Maria made landfall, September 21, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

Pinilla’s complaint goes beyond the prison’s lack of preparation or the troubling conditions. It also describes in agonizing detail how the crisis was aggravated by those in control and used as an excuse for cruelty and violence.

“The officers applied excessive force for the sole and impermissible purpose of inflicting unjustified harm both mentally and physically on the detainees,” he wrote.

Given the nature of the claims, “the fear of retaliation, which is illegal, is a problem,” Inserni told ThinkProgress. “You go and complain to one of these captains and they are just either going to shelve it, forget about it, ignore it, or deny it. There is no impartial fact finder to prosecute a complaint about basic prison conditions.”

As conditions in Puerto Rico improved gradually and the inmates began returning to the island from Mississippi last January, some were again put under the supervision of guards who carried out the abuse after Maria. If the guards suspect inmates are speaking out about the alleged incidents, they have the power to make their lives even more difficult.

Josué González-Ortíz, the staff attorney for Puerto Rico’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization hopes to learn more about the incident but has limited time and resources.

“Certainly it is something that needs to be dealt with immediately,” González said. “That these things are happening in the federal detention center is outrageous.”

He said that the incidents constituted violations of 8th amendment rights and “could certainly be qualified as torture.”

But, he noted, “they usually get away with it.”

González also points to the fact that the Department of Justice under the Trump administration has “neglected civil rights and denied accountability” in a various governmental operations, from education to police reform. He suspects that those attitudes may have made their way into the federal correctional institutions as well.

The lack of concern for the inmates in MDC Guaynabo appears to reflect the apathy towards Puerto Rico at large from both national media organizations and the Trump administration following Hurricane Maria. And with the island still facing a debt crisis, a housing crisis, and another crippling blackout just this past week, it is perhaps not surprising that the plight of inmates in a federal prison, hidden from the public eye, is not receiving the attention or response that it deserves.

While Inserni’s motion will allow the court to take Pinilla’s experience after Maria into account if and when he eventually faces trial, it will not lead to punishment for the guards, or retribution for the inmates in 2C.

According to Inserni, for any legal claim to be filed on behalf of the inmates against the prison, they would first need to show that they have “exhausted all administrative remedies” within the prison system, a process he describes as tedious and time-consuming.

And the chances of any monetary remedy being awarded to the inmates for their pain following Maria? Inserni put it at “almost nil.”