The Warden Tried to Cover Up a Crisis at His Freezing Brooklyn Jail — Then He Got Promoted

The Bureau of Prisons hasn’t released its investigation into what went wrong at the New York jail, but the man in charge just got promoted anyway.

The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, as seen through reflective glass on July 16, 2019. Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept

It’s been five months since a crisis of freezing and inhumane conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, when a power failure brought darkness to a detention center already inundated by the January cold. The Bureau of Prisons and the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Justice both pledged to investigate conditions at the federal jail but have yet to release their reports.

Even as those inquiries remain open, and blame for the crisis remains officially unassigned, Herman Quay, who as warden presided over the jail, has been promoted. As of June 9, Quay has a new job as complex warden overseeing three federal prisons in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, where he is responsible for some 3,400 incarcerated people — roughly twice as many as he was charged with in Brooklyn.

“It’s certainly not acceptable that the person who was responsible for the care of all the inmates at that facility, who from our perspective did not exercise due care, would then be getting a promotion to another facility.”

“It’s certainly not acceptable that the person who was responsible for the care of all the inmates at that facility, who from our perspective did not exercise due care, would then be getting a promotion to another facility, let alone a promotion before we have the investigation made public,” said Robert Gottheim, the district director for Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Judiciary Committee who had toured MDC during the crisis and denounced the conditions.

As warden of MDC last winter, Quay was responsible for a jail in which incarcerated people reported freezing cells, insufficient clothing, near-perpetual lockdown in unlit cells, cold and unreliable meals, deprivation of legal counsel and family visits, and dangerous medical neglect. Conditions became especially dire after an electrical fire knocked out power to much of the jail on January 27, as New York City was enduring a week of arctic temperatures, but people familiar with the jail say that MDC Brooklyn has a long history of inadequate heat and medical care. The situation generated public protests and inspection visits by members of Congress and a federal judge, and led the Bureau of Prisons and DOJ to open investigations into how things had gotten so bad.

Quay didn’t just preside over the crisis, he attempted to conceal it. He told the press that reports of inadequate heat in the cells were “inaccurate” and that incarcerated people had been “out all week” in common areas, rather than locked down in their cells. His staff initially tried to blame the power outage on Con Edison. When Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., attempted to tour the facility on February 1, Quay and his staff prevented her from speaking to any incarcerated people, claiming they were unavailable.

When top officials at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York asked Quay what was going on, he told them that heat and hot water were unaffected; he said the people inside the jail were receiving hot meals and medical care and were not confined to their cells. And when Nadler, the House member from New York, toured the facility, Quay told him that MDC had long had issues with heat, hot water, and electricity, but that he had never reported these problems to his superiors at the Bureau of Prisons.

Quay’s insistence that nothing so terrible happened at his jail last winter continued long after the news trucks had left the MDC parking lot. In an April 3 letter denying an inmate’s request for administrative remedy based on the ordeal he experienced during the power outage, Quay continued to insist on a version of events contradicted by the accounts of incarcerated people, jail staff, lawyers who visited the units during this period, and the testimony elicited by Judge Analisa Torres when she toured the jail in February.

Of the period following the fire, Quay wrote, “All housing units had functional lighting allowing inmates to move freely in the housing units.” He wrote that people had access to hot showers and the cells had hot water. “Inmates received regularly scheduled hot meals each day,” his letter said. “Medical and mental health attention was not affected.” For these reasons, Quay concluded, “the relief you seek is denied.”


Messages of support remain on the wall in view of those incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn on July 16, 2019.

Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept

The misrepresentation of conditions at MDC isn’t limited to its erstwhile warden. On April 10, Sonya Thompson, the Bureau of Prisons’ acting assistant director for information, policy, and public affairs responded to a series of questions Nadler had directed at the bureau more than two months earlier. Thompson’s reply to the House Judiciary Committee chair combines artful weaselry with outright falsehoods.


Why the Justice Department Can’t Be Trusted to Investigate Abysmal Conditions in Federal Prisons

“The heat for the facility is provided via a boiler and was unaffected by the power outage,” she wrote. This is true as far as it goes, but it gives the impression that temperatures at MDC the week of January 27 were adequate. In fact, heating units had frozen solid and ruptured (independently of the power outage), knocking out the heat in many cells. By one account, a guard recorded a temperature of 34 degrees in one housing unit. When Torres, the federal judge, toured the facility more than a week after the power outage, she noted that vents were blowing cold air into the Special Housing Unit.

“Medical staff continued to disperse medications,” Thompson wrote to Nadler. It appears to be true that some inmates whose prescriptions had been freshly filled continued to receive their prescribed medications throughout the power outage. Many, however, did not. In any case, adequate medical care involves considerably more than dispensing pills: It includes access to medical care, which many people locked up at MDC, with conditions ranging from eczema to gunshot wounds to suicidal mental illness, went days without.

“Medical staff did not come to the units,” Deirdre von Dornum, supervising attorney for the Federal Defenders of New York, told The Intercept in an email. “When inmates got a CO’s attention for a medical emergency, the CO” — correctional officer — “would say ‘too bad’ and walk away.” Touring the facility during the blackout, von Dornum said, she saw incarcerated people bleeding and begging for help. She continued, “When I returned three days later with Judge Torres, those same inmates still had not been cared for.”

“Hot meals remained available,” Thompson wrote Nadler, “and hot water was available in inmate cells and shower areas.” Both these claims are flatly contradicted by the accounts of people inside, who received no hot meals from January 27 to February 1. There was no hot water in the cells, according to people inside who spoke to The Intercept and lawyers who spoke with clients inside. Showers, in those infrequent intervals when they were made available, ranged from icy to tepid.

“The BOP acts as though because it is part of the executive branch, it is above the law, and that it can simply deny facts, no matter how many witnesses there are.”

Thompson told Nadler that during the power outage, people at MDC Brooklyn suffering from sleep apnea got their required assisted-breathing machines. “Inmates with CPAP machines were provided with the opportunity to be relocated to a secure location in the facility with power for the CPAP machines,” she wrote. This assertion is especially remarkable, since Thompson presumably knows that Nadler is quite familiar with the unavailability of CPAP machines to people who needed them inside MDC. Nadler toured the facility with Quay and other officials February 2, and spoke to people who hadn’t had access to a machine for days. It was only after Nadler personally demanded that people who needed CPAP machines get them that, seven days into the blackout, jail officials finally complied, moving sick patients to a largely empty wing of the jail that still had power.

Von Dornum, of the Federal Defenders of New York, said Quay’s promotion and the Bureau of Prisons’ letter to Nadler shows that the disregard for the safety of people in federal custody goes beyond MDC to the very top of the bureau. “The BOP acts as though because it is part of the executive branch, it is above the law, and that it can simply deny facts, no matter how many witnesses there are,” she said. “Any shred of trust we had in the BOP has been broken by its letter to Rep. Nadler.”

Nadler’s office is similarly unimpressed. “We’re not satisfied,” said Gottheim, Nadler’s district director. “Their response was inadequate.”

The Bureau of Prisons confirmed Quay’s promotion to The Intercept but wouldn’t say why he was promoted before the investigations into his jail have concluded or answer other questions. “As these matters are still under review, the BOP declines to provide specific comments,” an agency spokesperson wrote.

A spokesperson for the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General confirmed that an inspection and review of conditions at MDC Brooklyn last winter is underway but declined to comment further on an ongoing matter.

In February, after lawyers with the Federal Defenders of New York had gone days without being able to meet with their clients at the jail, the organization took the unusual step of suing Quay and the Bureau of Prisons in its own capacity.

The public defenders alleged that the jail was violating the right to counsel protected by the Sixth Amendment and asked the court to appoint a special master to monitor conditions at the jail. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, representing Quay and the Bureau, argued that while defendants have a right to see a lawyer, lawyers don’t have any right to see their clients. Judge Margo Brodie agreed and invited the Federal Defenders to amend their lawsuit to include people housed at MDC as plaintiffs. For the Federal Defenders, however, their ability to bring the suit on their own was the whole point: The Sixth Amendment starts to ring somewhat hollow, they argued, if the only people with standing to assert their right to counsel can be put on indefinite lockdown and cut off from contact with the outside world. The Federal Defenders’ appeal of Brodie’s ruling is pending.

A civil class-action lawsuit seeking damages from Quay and the Bureau of Prisons is also being brought by the New York civil rights firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady. Lawyers for the firm are still conducting interviews and collecting information, and a hearing is scheduled for September.

In the meantime, people familiar with conditions inside the jail on the Brooklyn waterfront say little has changed inside. Where it was perilously cold in February, it is now uncomfortably hot. Water still leaks from the ceilings and walls of cells, and black mold still proliferates. Medical care remains inadequate; lawyers with clients at MDC report that there is, at present, no gynecologist on staff or contract to provide care to the women there.

Correction: July 17, 2019, 2:51 p.m. ET
An earlier version of the story said the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York made arguments in a case brought by the Federal Defenders of New York. It was, in fact, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

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