Controversial lawyer Michael Avenatti is being kept in a special unit of a Manhattan federal jail that has housed accused terrorists and drug kingpins "for his own safety" because of his notoriety, the jail's warden told a New York federal judge Tuesday.
The warden's explanation came hours after the judge, Paul Gardephe, ordered prosecutors to respond to complaints made Monday by Avenatti's lawyers about his living arrangements in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he has been kept since last Friday after his bail was revoked by a federal judge in California.
Those lawyers had said Avenatti's cell in the MCC's Special Housing Housing was so cold he had to sleep with three blankets, and that he appeared to be subject to severe security restrictions, or Special Administrative Measures, reserved for particularly dangerous defendants.
Defense lawyers said that those measures were making it difficult for them to share paper documents with Avenatti in preparation for his upcoming trial for allegedly trying to extort more than $20 million from athletic apparel giant Nike.
"Under Mr. Avenatti's current conditions of confinement, we cannot effectively prepare for trial and Mr. Avenatti cannot meaningfully assist in his defense," those lawyers wrote in their letter, as they asked the judge to order that he be moved to the jail's general population.
MCC's warden, M. Licon-Vitale, in her letter to Gardephe, said Avenatti is not subject to Special Administrative Measures, but "is generally subject to the same restrictions as other" inmates of the SHU.
"Due to Mr. Avenatti's high profile case, his notoriety, Mr. Avenatti's placement is for his own safety," Licon-Vitale wrote, in explaining why Avenatti is in the SHU and not living with other inmates in the jail's general population unit.
The warden said that "moving forward, Mr. Avenatti can keep his legal materials in his cell," and that he has access to a computer on the jail's unit which he can use to review trial materials.
Avenatti gained his notoriety in 2018 for representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in several cases involving her claims that she had sex with President Donald Trump more than a decade ago.
Trump says he never had sex with Daniels, but his then-personal lawyer Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 in a hush money deal in October 2016 to keep her quiet about her claim before the presidential election that year.
The Special Housing Unit is used to jail high-profile defendants and inmates who may either pose a risk to other prisoners or who could be in danger if housed in the jail's general population.
The MCC, which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, has faced scathing criticism since last August, when another high-profile inmate — accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein — died from what has been ruled a suicide by hanging in his cell in the Special Housing Unit.
James Petrucci was replaced by Licon-Vitale as warned within days of Epstein's suicide, which remains under investigation by the the BOP's internal watchdog and the FBI.
Two guards who allegedly failed to monitor Epstein and other inmates in the unit as required by jail rules have been criminally charged with allegedly trying to cover up that failure by falsifying jail records.
Avenatti's lawyers obliquely referred to Epstein's death in their letter Monday to Gardephe.
The lawyers said Avenatti is apparently under "special administrative measures ... which almost completely restrict his communications with the outside world."
The attorneys complained that Avenatti was being held in what they called the "notorious 10-South" section of SHU, and reportedly in a cell that once housed Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the convicted Mexican drug lord.
The cell where he is being kept has an officer posted outside his cell round-the-clock and "two cameras focused on" Avenatti, his lawyer wrote.
Avenatti "has been locked down for 24 hours a day, in solitary confinement, except for attorney visits and two medical exams," the lawyers wrote.
"Not surprisingly, he has been having great difficulty functioning," his lawyers wrote. "He has not been permitted to shave. We do not know the reason why he has been confined in the SHU, under SAMS."
"While we understand that there may be hypersensitivity about Mr. Avenatti given the profile of this case, and the recent issues at this institution, this situation is truly hampering our ability to prepare for trial," the lawyers wrote.
Avenatti was arrested last week in Los Angeles after federal prosecutors there told a judge he had committed financial crimes while free on bail since last summer.
The attorney is charged in three separate federal cases that allege he ripped off clients, among them Daniels, for millions of dollars and the Nike extortion case.
Avenatti has denied any wrongdoing.
The Nike case could begin next week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.