Chilling Effect: Brooklyn Detainees Bang on Prison Walls as Temperatures Drop

By Elizabeth Morales

Associate Editor, Vol, 24

imageOn the first day of February, as temperatures in East Coast dropped below-freezing, a video showing inmates banging on the walls and windows of their cells at a Brooklyn jail went viral. The inmates were trying to alert people on the outside that their building had been with little to no heat for six days. Their call for help was successful, and a sea of protestors quickly formed on the streets below. More videos of activists chanting “turn on the heat!” made the social media rounds bringing worldwide attention to the conditions inside the jail.

The jail in question is the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC Brooklyn). MDC Brooklyn is a pre-trial detention facility in Brooklyn, NY that houses more than 1,600 inmates at all security levels.[1] most of whom are awaiting trial or are there due to their inability to make bail.[2]

Problems with the building’s heating system started on January 27th when an electrical fire broke out in the jail’s west building which houses only men.[3] The fire caused a partial power outage [4] and engaged the jail’s emergency power system.[5] There is dispute as to whether heat and hot water in the jail’s housing units was affected.[6] The jail’s warden, Herman Quay, responded to the public outcry stating via a spokeswoman that “[c]ells have heat and hot water, there is lighting in the common areas and inmates are receiving hot meals.”[7] Local public defenders and union leaders paint a different story.[8] They report receiving dozens of calls from inmates via a dedicated line inside the jail that directly connects the inmates with the federal defenders offices.[9] Inmates allegedly complained of frigid temperatures, ill health, pitch-black cells, and lack of access to essentials like extra blankets and additional sweaters.[10]

Power was restored to the building on February 3nd, a week after the heating system had allegedly failed.[11] The following day, federal defenders filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the jail’s warden.[12] The lawsuit claims MDC Brooklyn violated detainees Sixth Amendment right to defense counsel when the it completely ended legal visitation at the jail for eight consecutive days.[13] The U.S. Department of Justice has since launched an investigation, led by the Office of the Inspector General at DOJ, which “will probe the response by the Bureau of Prisons to the power outage and other conditions” that happened that first week of February.[14] As the nation waits for the official results of the investigation, the question the of who is responsible for this “humanitarian crisis” remains open.[15]

The Bureau of Prisons pointed its finger to the utilities company, Con Edison, alleging they experienced similar power issues within the community during the same time.[16] Con Edison adamantly denied these claims insisting that problems with the jail’s power systems were strictly internal and the responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Prisons electricians to fix.[17] Some union leaders believe the heat problems were unrelated to the partial power outage because power issues at the jail started a month prior when an electrical panel blew out.

As the agency in charge of running MDC Brooklyn, the Bureau of Prisons is fully responsible for maintaining the building “in operationally sound conditions and in compliance with security, safety, and environmental requirements.”[18] Besides running just running the facility, the building itself is also owned by the federal government.[19] If the statements made by Con Edison are correct and the partial power outage was not the result of powerlines being down and was otherwise caused by Con Edison, then fault appears to fall strictly on the bureau.[20] This story is developing and new information uncovered by the DOJ investigation will continue to shed light on what happened at this Brooklyn jail on first week of February.

[1] Kalhan Rosenblatt, Lawsuit Filed Against Brooklyn Jail that Went With Limited Power, Heat During Frigid Week NPR (February 4, 2019)

[2] Victoria Ristanovic, Power Outage in Brooklyn Jail Evokes Protests, The Signal (Feb. 19, 2019)

[3] Annie Correal, No Heat for Days at a Jail in Brooklyn Where Hundreds of Inmates are Sick and ‘Frantic’, New York Times (Feb. 1, 2019)

[4] Supra note 1.

[5] Benjamin Weiser and Annie Correal, Brooklyn Jail to Be Visited by Federal Judge After Heat and Power Crisis, New York Times (Feb. 4, 2019)

[6] Supra note 4.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Laura Ly, Lawsuit Says Brooklyn Prison Violated Inmates’ 6th Amendment Rights During Power Outage, CNN (Feb. 4, 2019)

[12] Stephen Nessen, Power Restored to Brooklyn Jail Where Inmates Went a Week Without Heat, NPR (Feb. 4, 2019) See also, supra note 5.

[13] Supra note 12.

[14] Ben Feuerherd & Priscilla DeGregory, Justice Department To Probe Conditions At Metropolitan Detention Center, New York Post (Feb. 6, 2019)

[15] Supra note 6.  

[16] Supra note 4.

[17] Id.

[18] Act of May 14, 1930 Ch.274, 46 Stat. 325, Organization, Mission And Functions Manual: Federal Bureau of Prisons, DOJ (last updated Oct. 24, 2018)

[19] Kenneth Garger and Lia Eustachewich, Judge Orders Lawyers Be Allowed To Visit Metropolitan Detention Center Inmates, New York Post (Feb. 4, 2019)

[20] Jon Schuppe, Brooklyn Jail Without Heat Reflects Wider Neglect In Federal Prisons, Critics Warn, NBC News (Feb. 5, 2019)