“‘Vicious’ And ‘Brutal’” — Life Inside a Freezing Federal Prison With No Heat

Inside accounts are seeping out of a New York prison where hundreds of people have been incarcerated without heat as the city endured arctic weather.

The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, which has been without power or heat since Monday, photographed on Feb. 2, 2019. Photo: Josh Begley

On Saturday morning, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., arrived at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York City to demand answers.

Hundreds of people incarcerated at the federal detention facility in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn have been living without heat, light, telephone access, and lawyers for the past week, as the region endured arctic temperatures. After touring the facility with other elected officials, Nadler, the newly seated chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said that what he found was disturbing.

“There’s a total lack of urgency or concern on the part of the prison administration with respect to getting the heat and the hot water.”

“There’s a total lack of urgency or concern on the part of the prison administration with respect to getting the heat and the hot water, getting the services we need,” he said on the steps of the detention facility after his visit. Several hundred people, many of whom have family members inside, had gathered in protest outside the facility. While some cells did have heat, others were extremely cold, Nadler said, and all were without power.

While the elected officials toured the detention facility, the Metropolitan Detention Center’s surroundings echoed with the sound of incarcerated people banging on their windows in protest. In answer, hundreds of their family members and other supporters massed outside, chanting, “Humane treatment for all! Get those lights on! Get that heat on!”

“I’m just worried about my son’s health,” said Tina Mongo, through tears. “I haven’t been able to speak with him, and I haven’t been able to visit, and I don’t know if he’s alright. I just don’t know.”

A number of people incarcerated at Metropolitan Detention Center have a medical condition called sleep apnea, and without functioning medical equipment, they run the risk of a stroke, Nadler said. “When I said to the warden, ‘How many people do you have with CPAP machines he said he didn’t know. I said, ‘Did you know there was a problem?’ He said, ‘No one raised it to me until now.’ Basic medical conditions are being ignored.”

Prison officials are in no rush to improve the situation, he said. “In an emergency condition, they are so eager to solve this condition that the contractors have left for the day and won’t be back until Monday.” Nadler said. “This shows the complete lack of urgency.”


Hundreds rally in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, on Feb. 2, 2019, in protest of conditions at the federal prison facility.

Photo: Josh Begley

Other elected officials who toured the prison described similar medical concerns. New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams said he spoke to an incarcerated person with an untreated eye infection and another in need of psychiatric care who was not receiving it.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, told The Intercept he was shown a cell in which an asthmatic man deprived of a nebulizer was lying on the floor of a poorly ventilated cell, trying to suck air through the gap under the door.

“I saw a young man on the floor, holding a bright red inhaler, and he was saying through tears that he doesn’t know if he’s going to wake up tomorrow.”

“As they took us inside, I saw a young man on the floor, holding a bright red inhaler, and he was saying through tears that he doesn’t know if he’s going to wake up tomorrow,” Myrie said. “This man is pre-trial; he hasn’t been convicted of anything. I grew up using a nebulizer, so I know what it’s like to need it and not have it.”

Bureau of Prisons Warden Herman Quay was standing next to Myrie during the exchange inside the prison, the state senator said. The warden was apparently unmoved. “There was no sense of urgency,” Myrie said. “He was extremely elusive, and all of his answers to our questions were noncommittal.”

New York City Council Member Brad Lander, who toured the Metropolitan Detention Center with other elected officials, described the prison’s facilities manager, John Maffeo, as “openly contemptuous” of the congressional representatives’ inquiry into conditions at the incarceration site.

The Metropolitan Detention Center houses more than 1,600 federal prisoners, ranging from around a half-dozen people convicted on federal terrorism charges to defendants who have not yet been found guilty of any crime. Union officials representing prison employees told the New York Times that power first went out at the jail on January 5, but that the heating issues began in earnest the week before last. On January 27, an electrical fire knocked out primary power to the jail. Under emergency power, lights were kept on in hallways, but not in the cells, and the prison went into lockdown.

“It’s awful,” said David Patton, the head of the public-interest legal advocates Federal Defenders of New York, who also toured the facility. “They’ve been on lockdown. There is no lighting. There is some heat, but it’s sporadic unit to unit. We were in one cell where the temperature was 50 degrees and there was water leaking into the cell.”

In some units, the heat is functioning, Patton said. “But even then,” he added, “you’re talking about the high 60s, and people are wearing essentially short-sleeve hospital scrubs.”

Patton said his office began getting frantic reports about conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center on Wednesday. He and his colleagues began filing dozens of emergency bail applications and applications to modify incarcerated people’s conditions of confinement in an effort to get people out of the freezing jail. Those motions are pending, but the earliest hearings scheduled aren’t until Monday in the Eastern District of New York and Tuesday in the Southern District.

The hearings, which will include testimony on conditions inside the prison, will force Bureau of Prison officials to defend their public assertions — contradicted by accounts from inside — that all cells in the prison have light, that the incarcerated people are receiving hot meals, and that the detention facility’s heat has been unaffected throughout the ordeal.

“He described the past week as ‘torturous,’ ‘vicious’ and ‘brutal;’ a ‘mindfuck.’ He was desperate for a hot cup of tea.”

Armed with a court order, one defense lawyer made it into the Metropolitan Detention Center on Saturday to meet with this client. A publicly filed letter to the court from the lawyer, Anthony Cecutti, describes what he found. His client “arrived shivering and sick, with a cough and runny nose,” Cecutti wrote. “He described the past week as ‘torturous,’ ‘vicious’ and ‘brutal;’ a ‘mindfuck.’ He was desperate for a hot cup of tea, and grateful to walk from his unit to the West Building. He described himself as ‘broken.’” Cecutti’s client described a detention unit in which the cells are dark, meals are cold, and there continues to be neither heat nor hot water.

A spokesperson for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city has offered the jail assistance in the form of generators, blankets, and hand warmers, but has so far been rebuffed. In a tweet sent Saturday evening, de Blasio announced the aid was coming anyway, “whether they like it or not.”

The Bureau of Prisons did not answer emailed questions Saturday, referring instead to a press release. “A work ticket has been submitted by the electrical contractor to schedule a work crew to restore power to the new temporary service switch,” the release reads in part. “The current estimate is that the work is expected be completed by Monday.” The release states that incarcerated people are receiving medical care and notes that the detention facility is accepting blankets from the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who was part of the delegation that visited the federal detention facility Saturday afternoon, announced on Twitter afterward that she had spoken with the director of the Bureau of Prisons, who agreed that the situation was unacceptable.

For many family members gathered outside the Metropolitan Detention Center on Saturday, the most resonant statement seemed to come from Williams, the city council member. “Those people in there do not care what’s happening,” Williams told the gathered crowd. “The only way they probably would have cared is if it was white, preppy students who were in there.”

In the wake of the fire, “nobody had a plan to make this system run; nobody cared about the people who were in there,” Williams said. “Whatever happened here only exacerbated the problem that already existed. When the heat finally comes on, we have to make sure that people are getting medical (sic). We have to make sure people are treated as human beings.”

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