The lights are finally on at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York. The federal jail had been housing some 1,654 female and male inmates with limited power—and allegedly little heat—for at least a week, including during the polar vortex-induced cold snap that delivered subzero chills to New York City.
Power was restored to the facility on Sunday night, but that doesn’t mean that the Federal Bureau of Prisons is getting off easy. The Federal Defenders of New York filed a lawsuit Monday against the agency over what it described as a “humanitarian crisis” unfolding at the jail. The case, filed in the U.S. District Court, is calling for an investigation of the jail to ensure the bureau is protecting the constitutional rights of those incarcerated.
While some particulars around how this all happened remain muddled, a few things are clear. An electrical fire broke out January 27, which is when the facility first lost partial power. The Bureau of Prisons has said in statements that it was relying on emergency lighting after this. However, the heating is delivered not via the electric grid but through boilers, whose infrastructure began to freeze during last week’s cold weather, according to the New York Times. While the bureau has maintained to federal defenders that the heat never went off—Earther reached out for comment, and the bureau forwarded its formal statements—accounts from public defenders and inmates painted a very different picture last week. Uncorroborated accounts on social media suggest at least some inmates are still this week.
Last week, those incarcerated at MDC began to make some noise. They called the local federal defender’s office, which is now litigating on their behalf, about the freezing temperatures, lack of hot food, lack of hot water, and the need for blankets, per Splinter. As the new lawsuit notes, federal defenders visited the facility Friday where they were able to confirm the cold conditions and that inmates were wearing short sleeves and light pants.
Things got even more real over the weekend once family members and local community organizers decided to protest outside the facility, calling for local and state representatives to take action to protect those inside. They could hear the inmates banging on their windows from outside, per the Times. And reps listened. New York Congresspeople like Rep. Nydia Velázquez and Rep. Jerry Nadler visited the facility over the weekend. The office of Attorney General Leticia James has called the situation “unacceptable, illegal, and inhumane.”
While all of this is awful, it isn’t the first time the MDC has been accused of mistreating its prisoners: A 2016 report from the National Association of Women Judges laid out the observations of four judges who visited the Brooklyn facility, including complaints of moldy food, poor indoor air quality, and lack of cooling. And while the current situation might feel extreme, jails aren’t exactly known for their incredible (or even decent) treatment of inmates—especially not during natural disasters or extreme weather conditions.
Remember Hurricane Michael when the Florida Department of Corrections failed to evacuate some 15 facilities when the hurricane came storming through in October? Or when prisoners at the Orleans Paris Prison in New Orleans were abandoned as floodwaters rose after Hurricane Katrina? In Texas, the courts finally granted some inmates the right to air conditioning last year after a lawsuit challenged the Texas Department of Criminal Justice over heat conditions. In the past, inmates would be left to sweat and sometimes die.
Paul Wright, the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, worries about what’s happening at rural jails in the Midwest and even upstate New York that also suffered through the recent polar vortex-induced cold snap. After all, if this could happen in “the biggest cosmopolitan city in the world,” as he put it, it could very well be happening elsewhere.
And climate change, which is expected to cause weather of all sorts to become more extreme, could make the situation worse.
“The American police state hasn’t responded very well to so-called normal weather,” Wright told Earther. “If they weren’t able to do that well with regular weather conditions, I think it’s fair to say they won’t do well at all with more extreme weather conditions.”