Richard Luthmann is a writer, commentator, satirist, and investigative journalist with degrees from Columbia University and the University of Miami. Once a fixture in New York City and State politics, Luthmann is a recovering attorney who lives in Southwest Florida. Luthmann also spent time with Keith Raniere when both were at MDC awaiting trial.
By Richard Luthmann
“Get Ready for Court”
“Lift your balls.”
“Now turn around and spread ‘em.”
Keith Raniere heard those words every morning at about 6:00 AM, while Bureau of Prison (BOP) guards prepared him to be transported to the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse from the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC).
After scrutinizing his genitals and orifices, Raniere would be tossed a tan, institutional “court jumper,” told to get dressed, and shuffled into a holding pen with twenty-five or so other pre-trial detainees with court business that day.
Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center
At about 7:00 AM, one of the guards comes with a tray of brown-bag breakfasts for the prisoners, consisting of an amalgam of cardboard and sandpaper in a small Styrofoam cup (which passes as bran flakes for prisoner consumption), two past-date half-sour half pints of skim milk, and a mealy apple that you wouldn’t feed a farm animal being sent to the slaughter. Bon Appetit.
Then the waiting continued. It started a few hours earlier.
Keith had been awake since about 5:00 AM, right after the guard on his unit finished the prisoner count and knocked on his cell door: “Get Ready for Court.” There’s no shower or cup of coffee.
By 5:15 AM, Keith was out of his cell, red-eyed and half-awake, standing in the cold, sterile MDC hallway, waiting for a guard to transport the prisoners from the upper floors of this human storage facility to “R & D” down on the first floor, into holding pens next to the loading bays.
Hopefully, Keith was one of the first people through the “court jumper” gauntlet, and he scored himself a place in the 15-seat cell that often accommodated twice as many prisoners. If he was lucky, he got to sit around, stare at the walls for the next hour and a half, and not be forced to stand there the whole time until the U.S. Marshals began chaining everyone up for transport in the prisoner vans.
The U.S. Marshals are responsible for the prisoner movement to and from the Brooklyn MDC and the Federal Courthouse each weekday morning and evening. The U.S. Marshals generally arrive at the MDC loading dock around 7:30 AM each day, and then proceed to “hang out” and bullshit with the MDC guards, drinking coffee and eating donuts. It might sound cliché, but the two constants at R & D were the coffee and donuts and the ever-expanding asses of the women who worked there.
At a little after 8:15 AM, the U.S. Marshals would chain up each of the prisoners in the holding cells, then move them out of R & D into the waiting vans in the loading dock.
By 8:30 AM, the vans were on the road, making the four-mile, twenty-minute drive from the MDC to the courthouse. This was “magic time” for the detainees. There was actual life on the streets. Men and women were headed to work, children to school, and the hustle and bustle of the City were all around the prisoner van. But that ray of sunlight was short-lived, because Raniere and company quickly arrived at another sub-basement loading dock in the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse building, where the prisoners would be put into filthy holding pens with no windows, no clocks, and cold aluminum benches.
You might ask, how do I know all this? Because I was there – in the Brooklyn MDC, in the vans, in the holding pens, and with Keith Raniere back in 2018 and 2019.
A few months earlier, I appeared at that same Brooklyn Federal Courthouse as an attorney representing clients in various civil matters.
Before, I would have a driver drop me off at Cadman Plaza to make my court dates.
Like Keith, I was now subject to the physically rigorous, four-plus-hour, hurry-up-and-wait obstacle course to spend the day in the courthouse basement holding pens. For the next eight or nine hours, I could look forward to staring at the walls with only a “fit for prisoner consumption” bologna sandwich and another mealy apple as sustenance.
During these “Court Day” ordeals, I had the opportunity to speak extensively with Keith Raniere.
We commiserated several times about how physically taxing it was to get to court, the deplorable conditions of the Brooklyn MDC, the hypocrisy and institutional rot of the Justice System in general, and our shared “crazy prosecutrix” Moira Kim Penza.
Prison Conditions for Pre-Trial Inmates at Brooklyn MDC
By background, individuals remanded to pre-trial detention are held in overcrowded, cramped, and unsanitary conditions, at risk of mistreatment and violence.
These conditions are often far worse than for sentenced prisoners. Remand detainees (like Keith Raniere and I) have no access to work, education, or rehabilitation, and can languish in pre-trial detention for years.
Brooklyn Federal Court judges continue to pay lip service to this bitter reality, while simultaneously revealing the judicial branch’s impotence (or outright unwillingness) to change anything about this odious status quo.
In Crespo v. Carvajal, a Brooklyn Federal Court Judge noted the undisputed reality that over 90 percent of MDC Brooklyn’s inmate population is comprised of “high-security pre-sentenced inmates who are intended to only be held at MDC Brooklyn temporarily,” while awaiting trial.
These “high security” pre-trial detainees are found either to be “dangerous,” a “flight risk,” or both. While there are some evil dudes, the vast majority are dangerous because the Government says they are.
Some are “tagged” as part of a violent group with little or no real evidence, no connection, and no prior criminal history: street gangs, sex traffickers, white supremacists, organized crime members, child molesters, Islamic fundamentalists, white nationalists, domestic terrorists
A Brooklyn Federal Prosecutor rarely fails to get a defendant remanded to pre-trial detention once they baldly assert to a judge that the person standing in front of them is a member of one of these “heinous groups.”
Raniere was remanded because Prosecutrix Penza basically said he was Harvey Weinstein rolled into Jeffrey Dahmer with a sprinkle of the Zodiac Killer on top. While that may sound a bit over the top, I assure you it’s much closer to the truth than you would imagine.
I was found “dangerous” because the Government initially said I was a “Mob Lawyer.”
For all my “dangerousness,” even after unannounced early-morning raids on my home and office, the FBI couldn’t connect me to a firearm or a crook who wasn’t already on the FBI payroll.
Brooklyn Federal Court Judges have repeatedly noted that the MDC fails to provide constitutionally sufficient medical care, maintains inhumane housing conditions, denies access to sunlight and fresh air, and gives detainees spoiled and contaminated food. And yet, no one in the Government seems to care.
When I was there, the air was provided through a ventilation system that was last thoroughly cleaned in 2014, contained mold, and had vents visibly clogged and infested with unknown materials. We would make cardboard vent covers to keep out the hazardous materials. But we had to play a “cat-and-mouse game” with the MDC guards, because if they caught you with a vent cover, you could receive a “write-up” for the temerity of trying to breathe uncontaminated air. Too many “write-ups” and they send you to the SHU or “the Box,” (which is worse than you can imagine, and a story for another day.)
Special Housing Unit or the SHU
The mattresses we slept on were often stained with urine and feces. If you complained and tried to get another mattress, the guards loved to say: “This isn’t the Hilton,” which was a nice way of saying F-off.
The shower area is close to the living and eating areas, so fecal, urine, and other particulates circulated throughout the unit, which was entirely filthy. And the cells were even worse. There are generally two inmates per cell, with toilets located in each cell, approximately five feet from the inmates’ beds, and they do not have lids. MDC Brooklyn restricts how frequently inmates can flush their toilets, so you can often have feces and urine sitting in the open air and close to inmates for hours. And water access is completely shut off during lockdowns, which occur multiple times per week and can last for days.
MDC Brooklyn pre-trial detainees have limited access to fenced-in basketball courts with a small barred opening to allow in a small amount of sunlight and fresh air. Most MDC Brooklyn detainees do not see the sun or breathe fresh air until months or years after entering the facility, and the Brooklyn Federal Court Judges know this.
In Crespo v. Hurwitz, the Court noted that the food preparation areas “are habitually contaminated by the visible presence and droppings of rats, mice, cockroaches, and flies.” Such contamination is passed onto the food detainees eat, which is “frequently spoiled and moldy, rendering it unfit for human consumption.”
Prison guards routinely deny detainees access to necessary medical care and threaten them with punishment based on the corrections officers’ jaded views that detainees are “faking” their illnesses.
MDC Prison guards just stood by and watched as Jamel Flood slowly choked and died after a pepper spray attack. Proper medical care is not “rationed.” It is simply unavailable. And when what passes for medical care is provided, it is wholly deficient, examinations are cursory at best, and referrals to specialists are non-existent.
This is a sketch of the punishing baseline conditions that Keith Raniere, I, and the other 90% of the warehoused humans at the Brooklyn MDC had to endure daily. Why is this important? Because pre-trial detainees are not supposed to be punished under the United States Constitution.
Due Process and Unwarranted Punishment
In the case of Bell v. Wolfish, the United States Supreme Court made it clear that a detainee may not be punished before adjudication of guilt under the Constitution and due process of law. A person lawfully committed to pretrial detention has not been adjudged guilty of any crime. He has only had a judicial determination of probable cause as a prerequisite to the extended restraint of his liberty following arrest.
Additionally, as stated in United States v. Stein, the Federal Prosecutor crosses into unconstitutional territory when they infect the trial with unfairness. The Due Process Clause also requires Federal Law Enforcement to conduct themselves fairly. They may not engage in a host of behaviors: intentionally delaying indictments to prejudice defendants; obstructing a defendant’s access to potential witnesses, evidence, and attorneys; offering perjured or false evidence; entrapment – all these things are forbidden activities by the Due Process Clause.
However, the Government’s unconscionable treatment of Keith Raniere and other pre-trial detainees at the Brooklyn MDC is no accident. It is a part of the “systemic infection” – a calculated scheme by the Government and acquiesced to by the courts. It is the “noble lie” of our time founded upon heuristics and pretext.
It is a rude awakening to those who naively believe in a functional Constitutional structure in today’s America (as I once did on the day I was first remanded). A defendant in custody faces greater pressure to confess and/or accept plea deals. Being in the inhumane conditions of a federal facility makes it exponentially harder to prepare a defense, consult with lawyers, or review prosecution evidence. When defendants are detained pre-trial, they are more likely to be convicted, enter a guilty plea, receive a jail sentence, and have longer jail sentences.
All these factors inordinately tip the scales in favor of prosecutors, who already have the full resources of the United States Government behind them.
Is it any wonder they have a 99% success rate? And the judges all know this. New York Southern District Court Judge Jed Rakoff conceded that innocent people plead guilty all the time and everybody – especially the judges – know all about it.
Brooklyn Federal Court is chock full of career judges and career prosecutors looking to become federal judges. In such a system, judicial independence and impartiality are rigidly protected, which may appear a virtue on its face. Realistically, it makes it impossible to discuss the ingrained and deeply problematic culture that has effectively pre-determined how these judges and prosecutors do their jobs, without reference to a detained pre-trial defendant’s constitutional and human rights or the actual facts the Government can prove.
For these reasons alone, it cannot be said Keith Raniere received a fair trial.
The government improperly denied Raniere the basic liberties necessary to mount a vigorous defense. Among other things, the government denied Raniere meaningful access to his lawyers.
Right to Counsel: The Government Monitors
The Sixth Amendment guarantees a speedy trial, the right to counsel, the right to an impartial jury, and the right to be informed of the charges against you.
The most important of these rights is the right to counsel, because without this protection, all other rights are illusory. But Raniere and all other pre-trial detainees are routinely denied the ability to freely and frankly discuss their case with their lawyers without the Government listening in.
The result is ineffective representation, no matter how good the defense lawyer is, because the fact-finding process is derailed.
Alan Dershowitz is Keith Raniere’s newly-engaged attorney in light of the revelations of the FBI and Federal Prosecutor’s “Unprecedented Corruption.” Dersh has been saying the attorney-client privilege is “mostly dead” for years.
The attorney-client privilege has not existed at the Brooklyn MDC for some time, because the FBI and Federal Prosecutors are listening in. Pre-trial detainees like Raniere are left with a Kafkaesque choice: tell your lawyers facts and information that will help your defense, knowing fully well that the Prosecutors listen to every word you say and read every letter you type; or say nothing and keep everyone (including your own lawyer) in the dark about matters that may establish your innocence.
How can this feature of dystopian fiction and Stalin-era Soviet show trials regularly happen on United States soil? Because of a systemic infection in the Brooklyn Federal Court and U.S. Attorney’s Office, which enables and reinforces the large-scale and wholesale deprivation of constitutional and human rights of un-convicted pre-trial detainees.
In the 2014 case of United States v. Asaro, a Brooklyn Federal Court Judge (and former Federal Prosecutor) ruled that prosecutors could read electronic communications sent between attorneys and their pre-trial detainee clients. In that case, the defense argued that the BOP and MDC’s refusal to provide “a privileged form of email communication” violated their client’s right to effective counsel under the Sixth Amendment. However, the judge ruled that “by implementing [monitored prisoner email] in recent years, BOP has not placed restrictions on inmates’ ability to contact their counsel, but rather it has significantly increased inmates’ ability to communicate with the outside world, including with their counsel, even if not currently in a privileged form.”
Fast forward almost a decade. The Brooklyn MDC has not improved its communication system for pre-trial detainees, and the Government still reads attorney-client emails. The Brooklyn Federal Court has failed to distinguish between pre-trial detainees and convicted inmates regarding the minimum constitutional standards for Government eavesdropping on attorney-client communications.
This flippant activity of the Federal Prosecutor remained standard practice even after COVID-19 when in-person attorney-client meetings at federal facilities were not permitted. And I have been in those “meeting rooms” at the MDC. I saw Raniere in those rooms with his lawyers all the time. If there aren’t Government-planted recording and listening devices in these rooms – at a federal facility – then there’s a bridge not too far from there that I’d like to sell you.
There are a few bright rays that peek through the maelstrom of the scorched sky. In United States v. Ahmed, a medical doctor with no prior criminal history detained pre-trial on a Medicare fraud case won a scathing ruling from a Brooklyn Federal Court Judge. Brooklyn Federal Prosecutors had the chutzpah to argue that attorney-client privilege doesn’t apply to emails sent for defendants warehoused in the MDC to their lawyers, because it was “too heavy of an administrative burden” to comply with the United States Constitution.
“‘That’s hogwash,’ said Judge Dora Irizarry. ‘You’re going to tell me you don’t want to know what your adversary’s strategy is? What kind of a litigator are you then? Give me a break.'”
But victories like these are small, few, and far between for pre-trial detainees like Keith Raniere, mainly where his Prosecutrix Moira Penza knew more about the evidence of Raniere’s purported crimes than even he did – because the FBI Agents under her supervision manufactured it.
And simultaneously, Prosecutrix Penza could go before another “independent judge” and sell the bill of goods that Raniere was an evil, dangerous, sex-trafficking rapist with a private jet waiting at Teterboro waiting to whisk him away into the wind if he were released on a pretrial bond.
The only problem is that the Prosecutrix and those under her supervision conjured up the factual basis for these claims. Who needs to sow lies and plant evidence to ensure a guilty man is detained and then convicted?
The Grind and the Churn
If there is anything that struck me about Keith Raniere, he is one tough dude. Pre-trial detention is no piece of cake, and MDC Brooklyn is a grind for warehoused persons. By spending day after day in court, Keith gave up what little creature comforts there was incident to that onerous existence.
For example, if you choose to go to court, you know you are not having a hot meal that day. The “bus” from the court sometimes doesn’t return to the Brooklyn MDC until 7:00 PM. That means you aren’t back into your cell until close to 8:00 PM, three hours after the dinner “mainline” is over. On your way back upstairs to the churn of the unit, you’ll get a government-grade bologna or peanut butter sandwich. Your entire day’s sustenance is literally garbage, bereft of nutritional value, and generally unfit for human consumption.
The Brooklyn MDC allowed one small perk (if you could call it that, and the BOP calls it a “privilege”), which is Commissary. Once every two weeks, you could spend up to $170.00 on overpriced junk food, instant coffee, and miscellaneous toiletry products. If you got hungry and wanted any food to eat that wasn’t provided at mainline, the only place you could get it was the Commissary, once every couple of weeks, during a designated weekday.
Keith forfeited his “privilege” of shopping at the Commissary by opting to appear in court. Each night, he returned from the grind of a court day to the churn of his unit. He didn’t have a hot meal to look forward to. By the end of the trial, Keith Raniere didn’t have much nutritious food to eat for months. The Government ensures they slowly break down the man they are prosecuting through the warehousing process. And the Brooklyn Federal Court judges continue to be fine with this treatment.
Keith Raniere chose to go to court nearly every day during his extensive pre-trial hearings, and every day for six weeks for his trial. How his body didn’t break down is a mystery to me. When I was released from federal prison, I didn’t walk out. I wheeled myself out in a walker with substantial orthopedic (and other) treatment unavailable in the BOP. My diabetes and bodily pain levels were raging. The thought of doing even a few consecutive days of the court grind was a physical impossibility for me. The rigors of pre-trial detention (and not the merits of my case) made any consideration of taking my case to trial and establishing my innocence a non-starter.
But Keith was not deterred, despite the Federal Prosecutor and Brooklyn MDC’s best efforts.
I wasn’t warehoused in Keith Raniere’s unit, so I didn’t get a chance to play cards with him or exchange books. But I can’t imagine he enjoyed the churn of the unit when he wasn’t in court.
I sought to avoid court because it was too physically taxing. Imagine the ludicrousness of an attorney who thinks it’s too much of a schlep to go to court. That’s the infection that is the Brooklyn MDC.
Instead, I turned my cell into a law office. One of my prison buddies, “Russell” the Russian from Brighton Beach, was my bouncer, debt collector, and put my bets in with the unit bookie. I had a standing deal that I would look over the legal work for the Bloods, and they would provide me with any additional protection I needed. And I was doing legal work for many “clients”: Puerto Rican drug traffickers, young gang-bangers, and even Roger Thomas Clark, the number two man in the Silk Road.
My creature comforts were based on the time I spent on the unit. Since Keith didn’t spend much time on the unit, he didn’t have many creature comforts, if any. And that makes me respect him even more for his decision to face the Brooklyn Federal Court grind each and every day.
The level of unwarranted, unjustified, and needless pain Raniere endured as a detainee at the hands of the Government is one that we have not often seen in American history.
The Alien and Sedition Acts, WW2 Japanese internment, Guantanamo Bay, and the January 6 Political Prisoners all come to mind.
Japanese internment camp.
It will be interesting to see how the Second Circuit Court deals with the apparent institutional infection once the Raniere case is held up to the scrutiny of the Court’s earlier decisions.
The Manhattan appeals court squarely said a prosecutor is presumed to have knowledge of information gathered in his own office’s investigation.
The Second Circuit’s opinions in United States v. Avellino and United States v. Payne are straightforward to anyone of ordinary intelligence. What goes on outside the courtroom gets pulled in and comes to a head in the person of the Lead Federal Prosecutor. The buck stops with them. That is who is responsible to the Brooklyn Federal Court Judge. And both the Brooklyn Federal Court and the Federal Prosecutor are accountable to the people.
And that’s not the most egregious violation in the Raniere case. The Government’s systematic deprivation of so-called liberty and due process guarantees, promoted by the FBI and Federal Prosecutors and rubber-stamped by the Brooklyn Federal Courts, is the real story.
In the Raniere case, we have a microcosm of how our justice system has rotted from within. The Feds break the rules, and the Courts don’t care. FBI Agents and Federal Prosecutors lie, cheat, defame, and degrade to punish American citizens before a conviction and violate the Constitution. And instead of their own silver bracelets and a perp walk, they get accolades, promotions, and lucrative private sector job offers.
Richard Luthmann is a writer, commentator, satirist, and investigative journalist with degrees from Columbia University and the University of Miami. Once a fixture in New York City and State politics, Luthmann is a recovering attorney who lives in Southwest Florida and a proud member of the National Writers Union.
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