Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Wednesday took up an unlikely cause — the plight of convicted fraudster Paul Manafort.
The progressive lawmaker expressed alarm at reports that President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman would likely be held in isolation after his expected transfer to Rikers Island — the New York City jail complex is in her congressional district — to face additional state fraud charges.
“A prison sentence is not a license for gov torture and human rights violations. That’s what solitary confinement is,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “Manafort should be released, along with all people being held in solitary.”
The freshman lawmaker doubled down on her comments when told that Manafort may technically be placed in protective custody. She tweeted that protective custody is a separate method, but “does not necessarily exclude solitary. If he is in fact not being held in solitary, great. Release everyone else from it, too.”
Ocasio-Cortez has been critical of retributive justice used by the prison system. When news broke that Chelsea Manning was being held in solitary confinement for refusing to answer questions before a grand jury, Oscasio-Cortez tweeted that the United States should “ban extended solitary confinement” and that the practice is a form of torture.
However, Manafort’s possible isolation at Rikers may be partly because of his and his lawyers’ concerns about his safety.
Manafort’s lawyers complained about his confinement from the start after a federal judge ordered him to jail in June 2018 over allegations that he was trying to tamper with the testimony of two potential witnesses in the federal case against him brought by then-special counsel Robert Mueller, and Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani later lamented that the longtime GOP operative was being nearly “tortured” in his conditions.
But legal experts say that Manafort got special arrangements away from the general prison population because of his high-profile status. At his first jail in Warsaw, Va., Manafort told friends he was being treated like a “VIP” and federal prosecutors explained in court briefs that the GOP operative had a private cell with a bathroom and shower, a personal telephone and access to work space to meet with his lawyers. Manafort’s situation changed in July 2018 when he was moved to Alexandria, Va., in a transfer that his own attorneys had requested to help them be closer to their client as they prepared for his first trial.
Manafort was relocated in April to a minimum-security prison in Waymart, Pa., where he’s serving a 7½-year sentence for a series of lobbying, money laundering, financial fraud and witness tampering crimes.
Manafort was also indicted this past March by the Manhattan district attorney as part of an effort to make sure the former Trump ally would still face prison time even if the president pardoned him. The DA wrote in a report following the indictment that Manafort was arrested for a “yearlong residential mortgage fraud scheme” through which Manafort and others “illegally obtained millions of dollars.” His final list of indictments included 16 counts of fraud and one of conspiracy.
Todd Blanche, Manafort’s New York-based lawyer handling the state case, said in an interview he’d make a request to the state judge presiding over the new charges to have his client returned to the Pennsylvania federal facility after his arraignment, rather than have Manafort kept at a city jail.
Blanche said he did not know when that arraignment would take place — he expected about 24-hours notice. He also said he remained in the dark as to whether Manafort would even be brought to Rikers but said he expected state jail supervisors would need to take into account Manafort’s high-profile status when considering whether to put him in a protected area or added to the general population.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday said at a news conference that Manafort will not be given special treatment at Rikers beyond measures needed for security.