Inspector General Report Treated Freezing Federal Jail as a PR Blunder Rather Than a Humanitarian Disaster

The report does not address the chronic deception in jail officials’ statements during and after the crisis.

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

When heating problems and a power outage plunged people locked up at a Brooklyn, New York, federal jail into a week of frigid darkness eight months ago, protests broke out on the jail’s periphery. The demonstrations in frigid weather, along with subsequent media reports on the conditions at the jail, drove elected officials to demand that the Department of Justice investigate itself to find out just what had happened.

The resulting report from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, released yesterday, relies heavily on the accounts of the very officials who presided over the crisis, draws minimally from the experiences of the people who endured it, and seems more preoccupied with the episode as a public relations blunder than as a humanitarian disaster. The report does not address the chronic deception in jail officials’ statements during and after the crisis.

Much of the material in the report had already been known. Heating issues at the Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn had existed long before a January 27 electrical fire knocked out power to computer systems, phones, and the lighting and power in cells and common areas for the more than 1,600 men housed in the facility’s West Building. The outage coincided with the descent of a polar vortex upon New York, with temperatures outside the jail, which sits on the blustery shore of New York’s Upper Harbor, plummeting close to zero degrees Fahrenheit and nearly 20 below with windchill.

The Justice Department report repeatedly notes the public misperception that the power outage was related to the heating problems. Indeed, it was not: The men locked up at MDC Brooklyn endured two separate and distinct infrastructure failures, compounded by human error. Six days before the electrical fire cast them into darkness, “multiple air handler heating coils in the West building … burst due to cold weather,” the report notes.


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

The coils were repaired sometime in the subsequent days, but investigators’ interviews with jail officials and staff indicate that, in the case of the heating system for the 6-2 housing unit, “during either the initial repair, or subsequent adjustments, MDC Brooklyn facilities staff either did not properly reset certain controls or accidentally turned off the air handler entirely, causing unit temperatures to remain low at times during the outage.”

This blandly impassive recounting belies a previously undisclosed bombshell: On top of the chronic infrastructural problems plaguing MDC Brooklyn, jail staff may have “accidentally turned off” the heat to the cells and common areas of one unit where people were confined. It also raises significant unanswered questions: Was the air handler actually turned off, or were the controls improperly reset? How did it take more than a week to discover the problem, and when did jail officials finally figure it out? The report is mum.

The Intercept emailed a number of questions about the report to the Bureau of Prisons, which it declined to answer.

Prisoners call out to protesters and family members gathered outside 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, including through the recent frigid cold spell, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Inmates call out to protesters and family members gathered outside the Metropolitan Detention Center on Feb. 3, 2019.

Photo: Kathy Willens/AP

The result of the coil ruptures and this newly disclosed human error, in the relentlessly implacable tone of the report, was that “temperatures in MDC Brooklyn’s West Building occasionally fell below the BOP’s winter target of 68 degrees.” The lowest recorded temperature inside the jail during the power outage, the report notes, was 64 degrees.

This soothing formulation comes with a sizable asterisk: “We cannot, however, state with confidence how many inmate housing areas experienced temperatures at or below the BOP target temperature during the week of the power outage, or for how long, due to the absence of reliable temperature measuring methods at MDC Brooklyn.” The facility has no automatic temperature monitoring system, which means that the report’s authors are relying entirely on the extremely incomplete record the jail’s staff made taking temperatures by hand. Staff didn’t take any temperature measurements at all during the first three days of the power outage. On those occasions when they did record temperatures, they didn’t reliably do so in every housing unit or bother to note the time that the temperatures were taken.

These are, the report allows, “methodological deficiencies” that hamper any effort to quantify how many people locked in cells that were how cold and for how long. But at least the jail created a partial record of temperatures gathered with a device designed to measure air temperature and is mechanically capable of doing so, right? Well, no. Tucked into a footnote of the report is this acknowledgement: “Instead of using a tool designed to measure ambient air temperature, MDC Brooklyn facilities staff used an infrared laser thermometer that measures surface temperature. If, for example, facilities staff pointed the laser thermometer at a vent blowing hot air, the recording would reflect the surface temperature of the vent, which would likely be higher than the ambient air temperature.”

Taken together, these methodological deficiencies — namely, that Bureau of Prisons officials can’t actually say how cold it got in MDC Brooklyn — might lead investigators to ask the people inside what they experienced. “If you had a disaster on a plane, and you wanted to find out what happened, you’d interview everyone on the plane, right?” says Katie Rosenfeld, a lawyer with the New York civil rights law firm Emery Celli Brinkerhoff & Abady, which is bringing a putative class-action suit in relation to the conditions at MDC Brooklyn last winter.

“My small law firm and a law school clinic have interviewed 75 people since this happened. How is it that the federal government was only able to interview 11?”

Investigators did talk to incarcerated people. Over eight months, in a facility that holds over 1,600 people across 18 housing units, the inspector general’s investigators spoke to all of 11 people who were locked up during the crisis. “My small law firm and a law school clinic have interviewed 75 people since this happened,” Rosenfeld said. “How is it that the federal government was only able to interview 11? If you really wanted to find out how cold it was throughout the building, maybe you’d ask people in each of the 18 housing units, right? The fact that they didn’t is indicative of a mindset that prisoners’ experiences are not valuable or truthful. Unlike on an airplane, when things happen in a prison, there’s a real prejudice against crediting people’s stories.”

While that isn’t a problem when the report is discussing mechanical problems with the jail’s heating infrastructure, it becomes a serious one when describing the conditions inside following the power outage. The report’s authors declare their “reasonable assurance that inmates at MDC Brooklyn received meal deliveries during the power outage,” contradicting widespread accounts from people inside the jail of unreliable food service.

The Intercept received multiple reports that, in one housing unit on Saturday, February 2, for example, the first meal of the day didn’t come until 4:30 p.m. On two other units, men went on hunger strike because, one told a family member, “they weren’t getting their meals at proper times.” The report dismisses these accounts on the basis of interviews with food staff and the food-cart deliveries investigators observed when they “judgmentally sampled footage” from surveillance cameras in 10 of the 16 regular housing units and one of the Special Housing Units over the period. The report does acknowledge that “over the weekend, staff delivered meal carts to some housing units later than is normally scheduled.”

More alarming is the report’s treatment of medical care. During the crisis, the reports of medical neglect were among the most disturbing stories to trickle out of the dark jail. Among the numerous accounts, perhaps none were more disturbing than those captured in a transcript of Judge Analisa Torres’s tour of the facility on February 5. One man told the federal judge that, after his cellmate’s repeated desperate requests for psychiatric care were denied, he “physically had to take the — literally had to take the noose off his cellmate’s hand; he was trying to kill himself.” Another man with untreated colitis showed the judge his bloody underwear. Another man with untreated glaucoma and a gunshot wound showed the judge his pus-soaked bandages that hadn’t been changed in three weeks.

The report skates blithely past these horrors, noting that while “time constraints did not allow us to evaluate the efficacy of medical care provided to a particular inmate or the population as a whole,” the accounts of medical staff and a survey of surveillance footage suggest that pill deliveries were for the most part conducted in a timely way throughout the power outage.

Protesters and family members of inmates hold hands while forming a prayer circle outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Some demonstrators protesting the lack of heat and electricity at the federal detention center in New York City attempted to enter the facility Sunday, and witnesses said guards drove them back with pushes, shoves and pepper spray. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Protesters and family members of inmates hold hands in a prayer circle outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York on Feb. 3, 2019.

Photo: Kathy Willens/AP

Finally, the report turns to the issue of communication and optics management, chastising Bureau of Prisons officials for a lack of openness during the crisis that “could lead to external stakeholders concluding that conditions inside the institution might be dangerous.”

“All of the clients I’ve spoken to say there was never such a thing as a ‘town hall,’ and even at the time, when I was touring the facility, staff never mentioned it.”

Part of the problem, according to the report, was that the outside world was getting its information from incarcerated people, who themselves didn’t know what was going on. Jail officials should have kept them better informed, the report finds, noting however, “According to MDC Brooklyn documentation, on the Monday following the fire, housing unit management staff also held town hall meetings, in every non-SHU housing unit, to discuss the situation with inmates.”

“That is a late fabrication,” said Deirdre von Dornum, supervising attorney for the Federal Defenders of New York, who visited MDC Brooklyn repeatedly during the crisis. “All of the clients I’ve spoken to say there was never such a thing as a ‘town hall,’ and even at the time, when I was touring the facility, staff never mentioned it.”

Herman Quay, the warden of MDC Brooklyn at the time, and then-Acting BOP Director Hugh Hurwitz told investigators that “they believe they could have done more to communicate with the media earlier in the week. But they were also unsure of the purpose of a proactive statement because, in their opinion, inmate management operations were functioning safely.”

A top Bureau of Prisons spokesperson told the investigators that “she did not believe that the power outage warranted a proactive media statement.” She speculated that this might be because “BOP employees may be less alarmed than the public by a power outage because BOP employees may view seemingly disruptive events as fairly ordinary occurrences at BOP institutions.”

The Bureau of Prisons “did not initially view the situation as an operational crisis,” the Justice Department deputy director of public affairs, who helped the bureau respond to media inquiries, told investigators, and for that reason, officials were “slow to realize that news reports about the fire and the power outage were creating a media crisis.”

Poor communication led to public ignorance, which led to the protests outside the jail, which intensified media scrutiny and “contributed to behavioral issues inside the building,” the report concludes. As an explanation of the events of last winter, this analysis — that what happened was essentially a “media crisis” built only on compounding ignorance and hysteria — only makes sense if the accounts of the people who lived through it are discounted, ignored, and erased.

In all this discussion of communication problems, the report has nothing to say about the fact that what public communications officials did make were in large measure demonstrable lies. When the New York Times first reported on the power outage in the jail, a Bureau of Prisons official blamed the problems on the power company, Con Edison.

When another reporter button-holed Quay, outside the jail a few days later, he told her that reports of a heat problem were “inaccurate” and that people inside were not locked down in their cells. The warden appears to have misled federal prosecutors as well: When, four days after the power outage, a top official in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District pressed him for an explanation of what was going on, Quay told him that “inmates have not been confined to their cells,” and “heat has never been impacted.”

None of these misrepresentations are addressed in the report, and the report did not advise the Bureau of Prisons not to lie to the media and public officials in its nine concluding recommendations. (Quay, for his part, was promoted by the Bureau of Prisons in June while this report was still pending and currently oversees twice as many people across three facilities in Pennsylvania as he did as warden of MDC Brooklyn.)

The report’s recommendations are all self-evident: The Bureau of Prisons should fix MDC Brooklyn’s heating problems; give everyone inside warm clothes; make sure prison officials actually know the temperature in their facilities; make sure people can still see their lawyers even when things break; keep lists of incarcerated people who need electrically powered medical devices to survive; and develop better guidance on how to communicate with people inside and outside the facility in the event of a crisis.

The Bureau of Prisons has agreed to follow all of these recommendations, and New York Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velázquez, who called for the inspector general’s report, have commended its findings, declaring their expectation that “the Bureau of Prisons and the management of MDC to comply with the IG’s recommendations so that there is not a recurrence of this failure.”

Not everyone is impressed. “There’s nothing wrong with the recommendations,” said Von Dornum of the Federal Defenders of New York. “But it’s like: ‘I recommend you stop hitting your little brother.’ Obviously, it’s good to fix the heat. It’s good to think about communicating with people. But the MDC was aware that it was freezing cold. They were aware we couldn’t talk to our pretrial clients. They were aware there were medical care issues. So recommending that they pay attention to this seems unlikely to have much effect.”

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