The power is back on and the heat has been turned up at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, where incarcerated people endured freezing temperatures, dark cells, and deprivation of access to legal counsel for the past week, prompting outcry and the intervention of federal legislators.
While many celebrated the moment the lights came back on in the federal jail Sunday evening and looked forward to the hearings promised by concerned legislators, cases in federal court over the past two days have made it impossible to ignore the fact that the humanitarian crisis at the federal detention facility extends far beyond the electrical fire that shut down primary power to much of the facility on January 27.
Federal court hearings this week have revealed a staggering pattern of neglect: incarcerated people left on their own, in the dark and cold, to deal with medical crises and mental breakdowns. One incarcerated person had to physically stop their cellmate from hanging themselves. People housed at the federal jail reported that as many as nine incarcerated people were left without potentially lifesaving medical equipment because of the power shut down. Another incarcerated patient was left with an untreated gunshot wound.
“My problem is I don’t trust the representations coming out of BOP. I just don’t.”
The revelations have left federal judges with a slate of cases to hold the federal officials running the jail — as well as the U.S. attorney’s offices stonewalling to defend the jail’s conduct — to account. Several of the judges have been openly incredulous as they dealt with the cases — evincing frustration with the federal lawyers as well as the Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, which runs the facility.
“My problem is I don’t trust the representations coming out of BOP,” said Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall, in a hearing in Brooklyn on February 4. “I just don’t.”
The legal actions kicked off when lawyers representing people locked up at the Metropolitan Detention Center began to realize that their clients were enduring arctic weather without adequate heat or clothing. They started filing dozens of motions in federal courts in Manhattan and Brooklyn, seeking hearings to get their clients transferred, to get them released, or just to get some straight information about what was going on inside.
One of the first of those hearings took place Tuesday in Manhattan, before Judge Analisa Torres. Across more than four hours of testimony by incarcerated people, employees, and observers, it became difficult to draw any conclusion other than that federal prison officials — including Metropolitan Detention Center Warden Herman Quay — had lied about conditions in the jail. (The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and U.S. attorneys present in court declined to comment.)
“Warden Quay informed the Southern District District Executive directly that the heat was unaffected,” Deirdre von Dornum, attorney-in-charge for the Federal Defenders of New York, a nonprofit legal organization that represents federal defendants and has many clients at the Metropolitan Detention Center, testified Tuesday. Having been in the building herself on February 1, von Dornum saw people shivering in freezing cells. In court, she said, “I have personal knowledge that what the Warden said was false.”
Von Dornum also testified that, though Bureau of Prisons officials had told Federal Defenders that medical care continued without a problem, they knew better. On von Dornum’s visit to the jail, she witnessed a crisis of medical neglect in the facility, meeting patients with everything from suicidal psychiatric conditions to potentially fatal respiratory ailments to suppurating gunshot wounds continuing to go without any medical treatment. “I spoke to some of those clients with Nicole McFarland standing next to me, indifferently,” von Dornum said, referring to the Bureau of Prisons lawyer who accompanied her on her visit.
After hearing this testimony, Torres took the remarkable step of moving her hearing from the courtroom to the jail itself, touring the facility personally, and bringing along the lawyers arguing before her. She also brought along a court reporter to record what happened. The transcript of her narration of the conditions she observed and of her conversations with incarcerated people reveals a shocking level of negligence.
The visit began in the jail’s Special Housing Unit, where people are held in solitary confinement. Torres peered into a cell and described the scene: “I can see abundant water damage,” she said. “Towards the back is a rectangular shaped cell. On the ceiling, you can see copious amounts of paint peeling and hanging from the ceiling. The ceiling is painted white, but the water-damaged area has a kind of a golden tone to it. It almost looks like wet tissues hanging from the ceiling.”
Helping to guide Torres was von Dornum, who had asked to tour the facility the week before but was refused by Quay, the warden. Only after von Dornum secured a court order was she able to finally visit on February 1. On that visit, she told Torres, the person housed in the dank and dripping cell had told her that water runs in whenever it rains, or snow melts, or there’s condensation, and that his sheets were soaking wet and hadn’t been changed for a week. A correctional officer confirmed the incarcerated man’s account, von Dornum told Torres.
The judge turned to Quay. “Excuse me, Warden, is there a way that I can ask him questions through the door?” she asked. As she questioned the man through a crack in the door, his responses were too faint for the court reporter to hear, so the judge relayed them for the record: “I just heard you say it was like sleeping under a waterfall, and you said that happened during the black-out, correct?” Yes, the man answered. The showers were freezing cold. He had asked for an extra blanket and was ignored. As he was speaking, Torres was looking at the water running into the cell from the ceiling. “You can see it, it is abundant,” Torres said. “It is plain as day.”
He “literally had to take the noose off his cellmate’s hand, he was trying to kill himself.”
The man sharing the cell told Torres he had tried to warn the guards of his bunkmate’s suicidal breakdown but was ignored. He “physically had to take the – literally had to take the noose off his cellmate’s hand, he was trying to kill himself,” he told her. In response to his repeated calls for medical help, guards put a box over the opening to further isolate him and his roommate.
“Sorry to hear that,” Torres said. “Thank you for telling me.”
“Thank you for being worried about us, ma’am, and treating us like human beings,” the man replied.
“I’m very worried about you,” she said.
Torres moved on to more cells with leaking water, damp and yellowed blankets, and light fixtures covered in “black blotchy mold.” The group descended to the seventh floor, where incarcerated people were circulating freely in their unit and the lights were on. When von Dornum had visited four days earlier, there was frost on the windows, she said. A man told Torres his unit had only received blankets the day before, on February 4. “We went a whole week with it being freezing, no lighting, my toilet not working,” he said. “They’re not letting us take showers. They’re not feeding us properly.”
In another housing unit on the seventh floor, a man with colitis and psychiatric needs told Torres all of his medical issues were going unattended to. “I have a rash that’s bleeding,” he said. “I showed the officer my underwear, and they said, ‘it’s above my pay grade.’”
Another man with obstructive sleep apnea told Torres he was forced to sleep without a potentially lifesaving CPAP machine because his cell was without power for seven days before jail officials finally moved him into the adjoining building, which still had power. “I’m not alone,” he told her. “I think there were eight other people in the building that had obstructive sleep apnea.”
Von Dornum found even the cases she’d highlighted had still gone untreated.
On down to the sixth floor, where four days earlier von Dornum had met a man with a gunshot wound to his hand whose dressing hadn’t been changed in two weeks, pus leaking out from the bandages. As with many of the other people she had met on that tour, von Dornum had flagged their cases to McFarland, the Bureau of Prisons lawyer accompanying her, and stressed the importance that they receive medical care. In the intervening days, conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center had become a national news story and a focus of congressional oversight, but von Dornum found even the cases she’d highlighted had still gone untreated.
“I got these bandages on for over three weeks,” the man with the gunshot wound told Torres when she found him Tuesday. “They still didn’t take me out the building to change the bandages.” The man also has glaucoma, he told her, which was also going untreated. “I kept asking them,” he said. “I seen flashes in my eyes and I’m supposed to go immediately if I see flashes in my eye. And I was telling the officers, and they was just completely ignoring me.”
“All right,” Torres answered. “I’m certainly hoping you get to see the doctor soon.”
Returning to her Manhattan courtroom, Torres wrapped up the hearing briskly and issued a ruling: The two defendants whose bail applications had opened the door to this fact-finding mission would not be released or transferred, she said, because in all of the day’s evidence and testimony, the defendants’ lawyers hadn’t presented any evidence specific to their clients’ own claims of medical necessity and fear of reprisal.
If that ruling was disappointing for the defendants and their attorneys, however, those calling for greater oversight at the Metropolitan Detention Center saw the day’s proceedings as a massive victory. Torres’s visit, transcribed word-for-word and published on the record, peeled back the lid of secrecy on the prison even more vividly than the accounts powerful politicians gave to the media of their own inspections over the weekend. The BOP did not respond to questions from The Intercept by the time of publication.
Beyond the nightmarish conditions inside the Metropolitan Detention Center, federal courts are also shining a light on the habitual opacity, misdirection, and outright deception by detention center officials that have allowed those conditions to fester.
John Maffeo, the facility manager for the Metropolitan Detention Center, testified Tuesday that he realized “it was going to be a long-term issue” once he learned the nature of the fire and how it had affected the building’s power system. “I knew it was not going to be a quick overnight return-to-service type of repair,” he said.
What emerged in the government’s responses to their requests was an official account contradicted by incarcerated people and the prison’s own employees.
Even with the knowledge that power would be out for the “long-term,” though, emails introduced as evidence in a separate civil suit filed in a Brooklyn federal court on Monday show that Metropolitan Detention Center officials kept the knowledge to themselves. These separate revelations came as part of a case where a group of federal public defenders filed a suit claiming violations of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel — since they had been repeatedly denied access to their clients. What emerged in the government’s responses to their requests — leading up to the case and in court itself — was an official account contradicted by incarcerated people and the prison’s own employees.
“I’m trying to figure out if I am to rely on the information that at least resulted in inconsistent statements by those who are responsible for the custody of those housed at the MDC,” said DeArcy Hall, the judge who is presiding over the suit, at one point in a Monday hearing, apparently unnerved at the prevarications of prison officials.
At one point, a federal government lawyer tried to hand the judge a spreadsheet that purported to show temperatures in different parts of the massive federal jail. DeArcy Hall declined to take it seriously: “Given the fact that it’s been widely reported that there are inconsistencies between what was being said with respect to the people who are housed at the MDC and what MDC officials are reporting out,” she told the lawyer, “I appreciate you offering it to me, but it’s unhelpful.”
In an email to public defenders the day of the fire, prison officials said only that incarcerated people would not be allowed to meet their lawyers the following day. When the defense lawyers, who had heard rumors of some sort of incident, pressed for details the following day, Adam Johnson, a lawyer for the Bureau of Prisons, wrote, “I have been informed that the heat is operational and that the inmates are currently out of their cells in the units.” The next day, Johnson wrote again to say simply that “legal visiting remains suspended today.” Over subsequent days, Metropolitan Detention Center officials didn’t even bother to tell lawyers that they wouldn’t be able to visit their clients, and when lawyers asked, their emails went unanswered.
By February 1, some federal judges who had gotten wind that there was something going on at Metropolitan Detention Center were asking questions. Edward Friedland, a top official with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, wanted an explanation from Quay, the Metropolitan Detention Center warden. Quay gave the prosecutor a status report: There had been a fire that knocked out power, he said, but “inmates have not been confined to their cells and are still allowed leisure/recreational activities.” That was simply not true, according to the accounts that more than 60 people inside Metropolitan Detention Center gave to von Dornum. Incarcerated people were confined to their cells on lockdown for at least 24 hours after the fire, and again for much of the rest of the week.
Each of these claims in Quay’s report have been widely contradicted by people inside the federal jail.
“Heat has never been impacted,” Quay told Friedland, and “is in the high 60s and low 70s.” This too, is more or less universally contradicted by public accounts of staff and people incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center. “Hot water has not been impacted,” Quay said. “Prisoners are still receiving hot meals…. There is no problem with medical.” Each of these claims in Quay’s report have been widely contradicted by people inside the federal jail, who report cold meals, cold showers, and catastrophically inadequate medical attention.
At the same time, Metropolitan Detention Center officials were peddling the same nothing-to-see-here line to the press. Quay’s spokesperson told the New York Times on February 1 that people incarcerated at the jail had heat, light, hot water, and hot meals. On February 2, Quay himself told another reporter to her face that there were no heat problems or lockdowns.
As the Bureau of Prisons continues to insist everything’s fine in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and the U.S. attorneys who represent the bureau in court continue to take their client’s bald assertions as fact, those strategies are losing credibility with judges.
There’s also evidence the Bureau of Prisons sought to deceive lawmakers. When von Dornum made her visit on February 1, she arrived, by coincidence, at the same time as Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who had heard reports of problems at MDC and wanted to make her own visit. Von Dornum proposed that they tour the facility together, since von Dornum is familiar with MDC, but BOP officials refused to allow this. Instead, von Dornum testified, once Bureau of Prisons officials had separated Velazquez and von Dornum, they told the member of Congress she wouldn’t be able to talk to any incarcerated people directly, as they were all locked up for the regularly scheduled “count.” Had von Dornum been with her, the lawyer said, she would have told Velazquez that excuse didn’t hold water. “The count only lasts 20 to 30 minutes, so obviously she could have waited it out,” von Dornum said. Thwarted, Velazquez returned the next day with a larger delegation of elected officials, and managed to speak to some incarcerated people.
The hearing that kicked off Monday, for the Federal Defenders of New York suit, was part of an effort to ask for a court-appointed special master to oversee the Metropolitan Detention Center. At their first hearing before DeArcy Hall that morning, they sought a temporary restraining order, forbidding Metropolitan Detention Center officials from denying incarcerated people their Sixth-Amendment right to meet with a lawyer. If some emergency condition necessitated the suspension of lawyer visits, the warden should have to swear out an affidavit justifying the suspension and submitting it to a judge.
“They’re lying to us, and I want them on the hook if they’re lying to the judge.”
“They’re lying to us, and I want them on the hook if they’re lying to the judge,” David Patton, the executive director of the Federal Defenders, said in court during conversations with government lawyers during a recess. When Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Riley argued that no oversight was necessary because Bureau of Prison officials had told her the problems at Metropolitan Detention Center were resolved, DeArcy Hall made it clear that the uncorroborated word of the Bureau of Prisons held little weight in her courtroom.
DeArcy Hall directed government lawyers to take half an hour to cooperate with the Federal Defenders in drafting language for an order that would commit the Metropolitan Detention Center to explaining any suspensions of legal visitation to a judge while still offering flexibility in the face of a security emergency. The judge then left the courtroom, but in her absence the government lawyers representing the Bureau of Prisons refused to negotiate. “I’ve got a client, just like you,” Riley told Sean Hecker, who represented the Federal Defenders.
The stonewalling sent DeArcy Hall into a rage when she returned more than hour later to find no progress. “Was my time wasted?” she demanded. Not at all, Riley assured her. The Bureau of Prisons was happy to give a reason for any suspensions of legal visiting at Metropolitan Detention Center, she said, it just didn’t want to be ordered to do so and it couldn’t agree to an order making it swear to those reasons before a court. “You’ll agree to what I order,” DeArcy Hall said, cutting her off, promptly issuing a temporary restraining order requiring just what the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Attorney’s Office had been resisting. A hearing to consider the broader question of the appointment of a special master to oversee Metropolitan Detention Center is slated for February 13.
For von Dornum, the defense lawyer, the hearing was a perfect illustration of why an independent monitor is necessary for the Metropolitan Detention Center. “The U.S. attorneys appear to be representing their client, the Bureau of Prisons,” she said, “as opposed to representing their client, the Department of Justice, which has an obligation to protect the constitution.”