Locked Inside a Freezing Federal Jail, They United to Protest Their Conditions — Only to Face Reprisals

In some units where incarcerated people protested, the toilets were shut off — leaving them sleeping next to their own feces.

The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, Feb. 5, 2019. Heating problems at the  troubled jail started weeks earlier than had been publicly stated, staff members and current and former inmates testified on Tuesday before a federal judge who led a special hearing to investigate the deteriorating conditions there. (Stephanie Keith/The New York Times)
Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Redux

Jordan remembers jolting awake in his cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, in the early-morning hours of Saturday, February 2. He had been hit with pepper spray to the face. Jordan, who The Intercept is identifying by a pseudonym, said guards sprayed and shackled him and his cellmate, then led them, partially blinded, to a shower area to rinse off. Next, he spent several hours in a “freezing” unit wearing only boxers and a T-shirt, before being transferred to solitary confinement.

“Their objective was to make an example out of my cellie and i,” Jordan, who has since been relocated to another federal detention facility, wrote to The Intercept.

The raid on the cell came after the men locked up on his unit — having endured six days without heat, electricity, phone access, or hot meals — decided to cover their cell doors with cardboard, towels, and toilet paper in order to disrupt the guards’ daily tally of incarcerated people. “We were tryin to demonstrate that enough was enough,” Jordan explained through email. “anybody with a brain and a tad bit of self respect would think to protest those conditions. we just wanted to be treated like humans.”

Later that morning, throngs of family members and others — including local and national elected officials — gathered outside in the parking lot for a weekend of protest against the jail conditions. With the news media looking on, people inside banged on their cell windows. Unbeknownst to those outside, however, the Metropolitan Detention Center was brimming with prisoners challenging their conditions in other ways: large and small acts, both individual and collective. All of them were met with reprisals.

Accounts from incarcerated people, their family members, and lawyers sketch a picture of widespread protests at the Sunset Park detention facility. People across multiple housing units undertook coordinated acts of nonviolent disobedience and at least three hunger strikes. Retaliation by Metropolitan Detention Center staff ranged from pepper spray and solitary confinement to shutting off toilets across entire units. All told, men on at least four housing units inside the jail say they took part in some sort of collective protest of their conditions. In each instance, they say their actions were met with official retaliation.

“When I see protests of the kind that took place at the Metropolitan Detention Center, I conclude that prisoners have really reached their breaking point.”

“When I see protests of the kind that took place at the Metropolitan Detention Center, I conclude that prisoners have really reached their breaking point, because they are taking — and they know they are taking — very significant risks,” said David Fathi, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “Retaliation against prisoners who protest is a common, everyday occurrence. Prisoners are a population who can, with very rare exceptions, be abused almost with impunity.”

Even when Rep. Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, toured Metropolitan Detention Center during the power outage, incarcerated people told him that they were afraid to talk about what was going on for fear of reprisals by Bureau of Prisons staff. “They told him guards would come up and retaliate,” said Robert Gottheim, Nadler’s district director, who accompanied him on the tour.

The risk seemed worthwhile to some. “Police in here wilding on the inside,” one incarcerated person said in audio from inside the jail obtained and authenticated by The Intercept. “They trying to make us like, go against each other in here, but we’re not falling for their traps,” he added. “Everybody just trying to keep the peace amongst everybody in here, no matter what walk of life they coming from. We just trying to stay strong, but they trying every trick in they book.”

Because sources inside the Metropolitan Detention Center fear further retaliation for speaking about what took place there over recent weeks, The Intercept is withholding the names of people who are confined at the jail, as well as other information that might identify them, like the names of their individual lawyers and family members, or the housing units to which they are assigned.

The Bureau of Prisons, which runs the federal jail, declined to answer a list of questions about protests and reprisals at the Metropolitan Detention Center, citing an ongoing investigation. “Allegations of misconduct are thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken if such allegations are proven true,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Metropolitan Detention Center security staff and Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Response Team patrol the grounds after reports of a bomb threat at the facility on February 4, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Power has been fully restored to the prison after inmates suffered the past week without heat and access to televisions, computers or telephones. On Monday morning, the facility received a bomb threat following a weekend of protests. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Response Team patrol the grounds at the Metropolitan Detention Center after reports of a bomb threat at the facility on February 4, 2019, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On one locked-down unit, according to two lawyers who each spoke with their clients there, residents were initially let out of their cells one at a time at mealtimes to retrieve a tray of food, but were ordered back into their cold, dark cells to eat.

On February 1, the sixth day of the power outage, one man from this unit decided to make a gesture of resistance, sitting down to eat his dinner in the unit’s common area — where the dim illumination of the emergency lights allowed him to see his food. Within seconds, as others looked on from their cells, eight guards in riot gear entered the area and removed the man in handcuffs, leaving those who witnessed the events to assume that he’d been moved to solitary confinement on the Special Housing Unit, or SHU.

The next day, February 2, no breakfast was ever served, even to those with diabetes and other medical conditions. When the first meal of the day finally came at 4:30 in the afternoon, guards in riot gear loomed over the food distribution to make sure no one tried to disobey again. At this point, the entire housing unit decided to go on a hunger strike. “Among themselves,” one lawyer said, relaying their client’s description of events, “they decided that they didn’t want the peaceful protest of their fellow inmate to mean nothing.”

“They went on a hunger strike because they weren’t getting their meals at proper times. He said people are in there, different kind of gangs, and everybody’s united.”

At least two other housing units also organized hunger strikes to protest their conditions during the power outage, according to lawyers, family members who have spoken with men on those units, and one incarcerated person.

“They went on a hunger strike because they weren’t getting their meals at proper times,” said a loved one of an incarcerated person who took part. “He said people are in there, different kind of gangs, and everybody’s united.”

While there’s a Bureau of Prisons rule that forbids “Conduct which disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of the institution,” no regulation says that people detained at the jail have to eat their food. That doesn’t mean the hunger strikes weren’t dangerous. “Corrections officials generally react quite strongly to even the most peaceful and rule-abiding of protests, so things like refusing a meal or some sort of quiet protest can be risky,” said Betsy Ginsberg, a professor and the director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Cardozo Law School, who represents clients at the Metropolitan Detention Center. “I’ve certainly heard of cases where people are severely disciplined, I think on a theory that a showing of that kind of use of authority is going to prevent further unrest or protest.”

On all three of those housing units where men collectively refused food, jail staff shut off the valves to the toilets in all of the cells, according to accounts relayed to lawyers. Confined to their cells on lockdown, deprived of light, the men on these units now found themselves shivering on their bunks with their heads inches from toilet bowls nearly overflowing with festering feces.

Jail staff has the capacity to shut off toilets from each housing unit’s control room, both in order to prevent contraband from being flushed away during a raid and to make sure that no one deliberately floods the housing unit by stopping up a toilet. But Fathi of the ACLU said toilet shut-offs are also a long-established technique of mass retaliation.

“It’s something that should almost never be done,” Fathi said. “Courts have been very clear that a working toilet is a necessity of life to which prisoners are legally entitled and depriving them of that for anything more than a very short time for a very compelling reason is presumptively unlawful.”

Retaliation during the blackout sometimes seemed arbitrary. On one unit, guards took a man out of his cell and into solitary confinement after he asked them when the heat would come back on, according to a lawyer who spoke with a client housed there. The remaining men on the unit took the move as a warning not to complain about the conditions. Another man on the same unit told his lawyer about an incident in which guards forcefully extracted a man from his cell using pepper spray and took him to the SHU after he complained about needing to take a shower.

Five times daily, according to the federal jail’s handbook, guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center conduct “the count,” during which — if they’re not already locked down — prisoners must return to their cells and be tallied. One man told his lawyer that even as he remained locked down in a lightless cell with no explanation, guards continued to mockingly repeat their ordinary call: “Lights on for the count!”

Jordan and his unit mates decided to cover their cell door windows with towels and paper in order to interrupt this routine. “You’re not helping them in terms of feeding them or anything else, so why should we allow you to do a count?” Jordan’s girlfriend told The Intercept, explaining their rationale.

The day after guards pepper-sprayed Jordan and his cellmate, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., visited the men in the segregated housing unit, where she says she heard Jordan’s story just as he relayed it to The Intercept. Velázquez, whose district includes the Metropolitan Detention Center, spoke to reporters and activists immediately after touring the facility. “I spoke to both of them,” she said. “They are doing well under their circumstances. Just because they covered the glass to protest the treatment they felt wasn’t fair, they were used as an example to the other inmates.”

“It was a very simple note. It just had a phone number and said ‘Please tell my wife and family that I’m OK.’”

Sabrina Shroff, a lawyer with the Federal Defenders of New York, stood in the parking lot outside the Metropolitan Detention Center on the morning of February 3, as temperatures finally crept into the 40s. It had been a week since the federal jail lost power. Shroff had been promised that this morning, for the first time in a week, she and other defense attorneys would be allowed inside to meet with clients to help them prepare for upcoming cases. But when she arrived, she was told that once again, lawyers and family members were barred from entering.

As she waited in the parking lot to see if jail officials would change their mind, Shroff gazed up and was surprised to see a paper airplane drifting down from one of the high windows. She followed it as it drifted in the air, but a prison guard stationed outside got to it first. Fortunately for Shroff, Velázquez, the House member, was also outside the jail, preparing to make another inspection of conditions inside. Shroff persuaded Velázquez to retrieve the paper plane.

“It was a very simple note, written in blue crayon on a visit form,” Shroff said. “There was no name attached. It just had a phone number and said ‘Please tell my wife and family that I’m OK.’”

Shroff tried repeatedly to reach the family over the next few days, but was unable to. The cellphone account attached to the number was out of credit.

The paper plane was just one instance of incarcerated people inside the Metropolitan Detention Center trying to get word out as the power outage dragged on — efforts that went up against tough odds and, in some cases, were met with punitive measures.

Veronica Matus, 42, an activist from Queens, left, embraces Catana Yehudah, 50, of the Bronx, as Yehuda speaks into the microphone  Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in New York, at prisoners listening from inside their cells at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility of all security levels, where prisoners have been without heat, hot water, electricity and proper sanitation due to an electrical failure since earlier in the week. Yehuda's brother Jason Smith, 40, is serving an 18-month sentence in the prison for gun possession. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Demonstrators outside of the Metropolitan Detention Center speak into the microphone on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in New York.

Photo: Kathy Willens/AP
The growing protests in the parking lot outside the federal jail a week after the power outage provided a few opportunities: In addition to sending winged notes, incarcerated people lucky enough to have windows in their cells could answer questions from the demonstrators below, knocking on their windows in response. “Bang on your windows if you still don’t have heat!” a woman called out over a bullhorn from the parking lot on February 3. A clattering chorus echoed back the reply.

This kind of direct communication may have made prison officials uncomfortable. One woman says her brother saw guards with nonlethal beanbag guns walking along his housing unit after the lights were restored. They were “trying like to intimidate them,” she said, “telling them, stop banging on the windows, they have the lights now, what are they banging for?”

“It’s really stressful to him,” she added. “They’re treating them like animals and telling them, ‘Y’all getting treated like this because y’all don’t know how to act.’ But … how do you act when you’re in that predicament?”

Others had taken still more risky measures. On January 31, five days after the power went out, men on one housing unit took the opportunity of a brief respite from lockdown to gather in a cell and shoot a video on a contraband cellphone. “It’s freezing in here,” one said, a shirt around his head. Flipping the switch to no effect, the men demonstrated that the lights in the cell weren’t working. Neither was the toilet. People on the unit were getting sick, one of the men said — “They treat humans worse than animals.”

Within days, the video was circulating on social media and posted to the site WorldStarHipHop. People incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center aren’t allowed cellphones and, according to lawyers with clients on the housing unit, the response from jail authorities was swift. Men suspected of making the video were taken from their cells and put in the SHU.

Another man said he believes that he was sent to the SHU because of Facebook posts made by someone outside the prison that drew attention to conditions inside.

“It’s definitely causing a lot of stress for my family,” his loved one told The Intercept on February 11, a week after electricity was restored. “We can’t speak to him. It’s hard to sleep at night not knowing what he’s going through. My children can’t speak to their dad. They’re scared for him.”

Cold and left in the dark, the people locked up in the Metropolitan Detention Center were unable to leverage even official channels made available to complain about poor conditions. Under Bureau of Prisons protocols, incarcerated people can file formal complaints using a standardized form called a BP-8. Filing a BP-8 is the first step toward getting grievances about jail conditions addressed.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 required prisoners to exhaust the Bureau of Prisons’ internal grievance system before they are allowed to assert their rights in court. The result, say critics of the law, has been the weakening of one of the only mechanisms for independent oversight of jails and prisons. The act “allows prison officials to control prisoners’ access to the courts,” says Fathi of the ACLU. “They can do that by making their grievance system slow and technical and complicated, or just by making grievance forms unavailable.”

Grievance forms were indeed scarce at the Metropolitan Detention Center during and after the power outage, according to lawyers with the Federal Defenders who received a torrent of calls from many of the housing units inside. The clients complained that guards were denying requests for forms and telling anyone asking for them that “they were out of BP-8s.” When news of this reached Deirdre von Dornum, attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders for the Eastern District of New York, she immediately emailed Nicole McFarland and Adam Johnson, the jail’s legal liaisons.

“This is unacceptable,” von Dornum wrote. “Please let me know when and how this will be remedied.” McFarland wrote back: “I promptly looked into this issue and learned that there are BP-8 forms available throughout the facility.” Later that day, according to reports the Federal Defenders of New York got from their clients, BP-8s began to appear on the housing units.

As the people in MDC began to fill out the forms, however, many of them realized that there was another hurdle: They couldn’t submit the forms without the signature of their housing unit’s staff correctional counselor; but on several units, counselors were nowhere to be seen.

“Given the severity of the conditions that week at MDC, I’m concerned that these detainees may have been targeted for reprisals by senior leadership.”

One person who did manage to submit a complaint about the conditions of the past week soon had cause to regret it. According to his lawyer, within hours of submitting his BP-8, the man was taken from his cell while guards rummaged through and confiscated everyday items in what the man took to be retaliation for his complaint. Von Dornum said she has received multiple reports of people being subjected to disruptive cell searches after filing grievances in the days since the power outage.

The power is back on at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. As a result of public outcyy and lawmakers pressure, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General has launched an investigation into the response to the heat and electricity failures at the jail. Whether the scope of this inquest will include allegations that staff punished people for protesting their conditions remains unclear. In a statement to The Intercept, Velázquez said that any Department of Justice investigation should include these allegations of retaliation. “Given the severity of the conditions that week at MDC, I’m concerned that these detainees may have been targeted for reprisals by senior leadership,” she said.

Last week, when regular visitation resumed at the Metropolitan Detention Center, Jordan’s girlfriend was able to visit him for the first time since he’d been placed in the SHU. During the visit, she says, he described what he had endured, including the pepper spray and shackling. “He’s doing OK for the most part, but he’s still kind of jumpy,” she recalled. “Like, you know, when you hear a door open and you are jumping up?”

Jordan later summarized the cold, dark conditions that precipitated his unit’s protest. “Those are conditions that dog fighters subject their dogs to to make them more vicious,” he wrote. “leave em in the dark n feed em once in a while. it has a psychological effect on you.”

“Unless we speak out it’ll continue to go unnoticed and swept under the rug,” he added. “Right is right and wrong is wrong.”

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