A law school alumnus who joined fossil fuel divestment protesters on the field at the Yale-Harvard football game in November is pushing the New Haven Police Department to reform the “appalling” conditions in its holding cells.
Kevin Keenan LAW ’02 — who currently works at the Vera Institute of Justice — was one of three individuals arrested and brought to the New Haven Police Department station for refusing to leave the field at the Game’s anti-divestment protest on Nov. 23. There, Keenan was kept in one of over 55 holding cells for six hours. While these cells are designed to detain people for a brief period, Keenan said that individuals could be there for several nights in conditions that he called worse than solitary confinement.
“I’ve probably visited over two dozen jails and prisons, and I’ve never seen conditions like that,” Keenan told the News in an interview. “People don’t realize that there is this detention center that holds so many people in such terrible conditions.”
Keenan penned a letter to Anthony Dawson, chair of the police commission board, and NHPD Chief Otoniel Reyes, describing the circumstances of the holding cells. He said that individuals who stayed overnight slept in cold, brightly lit cells with metal beds that did not have mattresses. The cells also lacked clocks or windows, and the perpetual lighting left detainees unable to sleep and without a sense of how much time had passed. While the NHPD said the prisoners were fed three times a day, Keenan said they were fed bologna sandwiches only twice a day and had no access to reading materials.
The role of holding cells is to keep individuals in custody after their arrest and until their information can be processed — to book a court appearance or verify whether they will be charged, which should take only a few hours. But depending on when an individual is arrested, the time they spend in these cells can be extended significantly. Keenan said that if someone was arrested after 3 a.m. on a Friday morning, it is unlikely they would be scheduled for court on that Friday, and might spend the entire weekend in a cell awaiting court on Monday. During public holidays, this process can take even longer, leaving an individual in a cell for up to 102 hours for minor offenses.
Keenan said that a man detained alongside him had been arrested for driving a car with tinted windows, and spent more than 60 hours in the cell without access to his prescribed medication for diagnosed anxiety. This man told Keenan he felt like a “caged dog” in the NHPD cells, Keenan recounted.
“NHPD Chief Reyes could easily, cheaply and immediately mitigate the inhumane conditions in his holding cells,” Keenan wrote in his letter. “These changes would prevent the accumulation of conditions that lead to … dramatic abuses … [and] reduce the significant harm that NHPD is imposing on New Haven residents subject to extended detention during weekends and holidays.”
At a meeting of the NHPD police commision on Tuesday evening, Keenan brought his concerns to the police commissioners, alongside several community members who attended in a show of support.
“[The NHPD] doesn’t really care about how people are treated and how they’re handled,” longtime community activist Barbara Fair told the News. “I’m not saying you need to give them satin sheets but you can make things more comfortable. You can give them a decent meal or not wake them up in the middle of the night to go to court.”
Keenan also arranged a phone call on Wednesday with Assistant Chief Renee Dominguez and Lieutenant Nicholas Marcucio, who runs the detention facility.
Marcucio told the News that it wasn’t the typical case for individuals to be held overnight, and it was more likely to occur in the case of a person suspected of serious crimes or someone with an arrest warrant who had a high bond set by a judge — in which case the department did not have jurisdiction to change the bond. He added that the bail commissioner — who visits the jail in the early morning, afternoon and evening — frequently lowered the bail for individuals and estimated that about half of the individuals detained would be released by either the commissioner or the department.
“No system is perfect, but we try our best to make sure our bails are reasonable,” Marcucio said. “In all reality, we hope that they’re going to be able to make bail so they can be released.”
Among other recommendations, Keenan called for rubber jail mattresses to place on the metal beds, pillows and blankets, books in the cells, dimmed lighting, snacks in the morning and afternoon and one phone call daily — instead of only one on the day of detention. He also raised concerns about the safety of the facility itself, which had its last fire inspection in 2017.
Marcucio highlighted multiple logistical difficulties he sees in implementing Keenan’s changes. Marcucio said that the NHPD building was not as modern as other facilities. Consequently, the cells are made of metal and include bars that somebody may be able to use to harm themselves by hanging. If arrested persons were given blankets, he said, it would provide them with materials they could use to hurt themselves.
In addition, Marcucio said mattresses would create a hygiene problem where they may facilitate the spread of bed bugs or lice. He emphasized that the holding facility was unlike the controlled environments of jails, where individuals are stripped of their property, made to shower and given clean clothes before entering.
With respect to reading materials, Marcucio also said that arrestees often attempted to clog the toilets at the holding cells with juice boxes and clothing, and he suspected a similar problem would arise if the cells included books. While Keenan suggested that books could be taken away in such circumstances, Marcucio said that it may increase violent incidents if officers attempted to confiscate materials from an agitated individual inside their cell.
“I understand [Keenan’s] point of view,” Marcucio said. “I get it. If you’re here for a weekend, you’re going to be extremely bored. But there are several concerns … everything here isn’t [the arrestee’s] property, so they’re really not going to be inclined to take care of it.”
Still, Marcucio agreed with some of Keenan’s changes to the General Orders, such as replacing the terminology of those held in the cells from “prisoners” to “arrestees” or “arrested persons.”
The New Haven Police Department was founded in 1861.
Meera Shoaib | firstname.lastname@example.org