Lawyers, defendants rally against filthy conditions in NYC courthouses

Anthony Gantt recalls decrepit conditions at a Brooklyn courthouse during a rally at City Hall on Sept. 1.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Lawyers and their clients rallied outside City Hall Wednesday demanding Mayor Bill de Blasio to address the decrepit conditions inside the city’s courthouses.

The lack of proper ventilation and pervasive grime is a danger to all who pass through the criminal justice system amid rising COVID-19 infections, said one Brooklyn public defender at the Sept. 1 protest.

“In my eyes it’s criminal, it’s negligence, it’s complete negligence,” said Spencer Smith an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. “Fifteen months where these areas were, for the most part, vacant compared to normal times and they really did not make any meaningful change.”

When the lawyer returned to in-person arraignments in Downtown Brooklyn in July, he said he found old cigarette butts left untouched more than a year after courthouses shuttered in March 2020.

“So that tells you how often they actually give it a deep clean as they like to say — it doesn’t happen,” he said.

The city’s courthouses remained in filthy conditions during the pandemic, with soot-coated air vents, stains, and moldy chairs littering the government buildings, the Daily News reported back in July.

Mayor Bill de Blasio falsely tried to pass the buck to the state’s Office of Court Administration (OCA), which runs the court system, but the buildings are owned by the city and managed through its Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

“There’s no accountability at all, the buck doesn’t stop with anyone. They continue to pass it to someone else,” Smith said.

Protesters rally against filthy and unsafe conditions inside the city’s courthouses, at City Hall on Sept. 1.Photo by Kevin Duggan

The conditions far predate the pandemic.

One shelter coordinator who was processed through the courthouse on Schermerhorn Street in Downtown Brooklyn in April noticed little had changed in 50 years since he had his last run-in with the law — other than a new fingerprint scanner.

“I said to myself, ‘Wow, everything else is the same.’ 50 years from then to now it’s the same, other than the fingerprint process,” said Anthony Gantt.

The 71-year-old was horrified to find that he had to share his windowless cell with five other people, none of whom were wearing a mask.

When one cellmate suffering from heroin withdrawal threw up, they asked police officers for a mop to clean it up.

“They gave us a roll of toilet paper,” he recalled.

The legal workers and their unions demanded the city allow environmental health experts into the buildings and for the state to return to virtual court proceedings until the buildings are safe.

A mayoral spokesman said the city assessed all its HVAC systems and equipped them with the “highest-rated” air filters.

“We remain absolutely committed to safety in City-managed courthouses, and we’ll continue doing everything required to maintain an appropriate environment for everyone who enters them,” said Mitch Schwartz.  

City officials have also installed portable air filters “wherever we can,” the rep said, claiming that the city provides everyone in custody with N95 masks. 

Due to the tight spaces at Manhattan Court, the city will also set up plexiglass in the attorney visit space, according to the mayor’s office. 

When asked about resuming virtual court hearings, OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said in an emailed statement:

“We are in constant contact with the defender organizations regarding their concerns and address them as they occur.”