“An Extreme Amount of Pain”: How a Notorious Jail Failed a Disabled Transgender Inmate

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MDC Brooklyn defied a series of court orders. Yet another prisoner paid the price.

When Kara Sternquist was arrested and jailed in MDC Brooklyn—a scandal-plagued federal detention center—she already had what a prosecutor described as “unique medical challenges.” After receiving surgery to address a spinal compression prior to her arrest, Sternquist was left with “very limited sensation in the bottom half of her body” and used devices like canes to walk, according to her attorney. She also was unable to use the toilet on her own and instead relied on a catheter, which needed to be replaced regularly.

Following her September 15 arrest, Sternquist initially did not see a doctor for 10 days, according to federal court transcripts reviewed by Mother Jones. That was merely the beginning of a series of medical failures, which ultimately resulted in her hospitalization with a life-threatening infection. While in custody, she faced issues accessing medications. And according to her lawyer, Sternquist—a transgender woman—was also repeatedly misgendered due to issues with how her identity was recorded in the jail’s IT systems, an apparent violation of federal prison rules.

“We are seriously concerned for Ms. Sternquist’s safety,” her lawyer, a federal public defender, wrote in a September 2022 court filing.

At one point, one of the numerous judges who has rotated through Sternquist’s case threatened to sanction the Department of Justice over the jail’s failure to obey a court order regarding her housing. In at least two other instances, judges issued orders regarding her medical care, but the jail failed to comply before the court-imposed deadlines had passed, according to court transcripts and documents.

Poor health care is not unusual for inmates at MDC Brooklyn, where one prisoner previously was left for two weeks with an untreated gunshot wound and others were denied access to medical equipment. A judge in Sternquist’s case even recalled releasing a potentially dangerous inmate because that inmate had received substandard care at the jail. One inmate died after being pepper sprayed by guards, and judges have expressed concern about the conditions of pregnant women held in the jail. In the winter of 2019, the jail went without heat and electricity for a week.

Sternquist has been charged with illegally possessing a firearm and fraudulent government ID badges. Mother Jones sent a detailed list of questions to the federal Bureau of Prisons, the agency within the Justice Department that oversees and operates MDC Brooklyn. A spokesperson declined to answer questions about the specific conditions of Sternquist’s incarceration but claimed that the bureau “provides essential medical, dental, and mental health services in a manner consistent with accepted community standards for a correctional environment.”

During her incarceration, two different judges ordered the jail to arrange for Sternquist to receive medical care, her lawyer told yet another judge in a September hearing. One of the orders, which is currently sealed, set a deadline mandating that Sternquist see a physician by September 23. But that medical appointment did not take place until September 26, three days after the deadline, her lawyer wrote in a legal filing. At that point, her lawyer said, Sternquist’s catheter was overdue to be replaced.

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