A newly public internal report from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons found widespread problems at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, and faulted the federal jail’s leadership for neglect leading up to a winter 2019 crisis. The report, conducted in the aftermath of the power and heating outages during a brutal winter cold, criticized the jail’s warden for the response to the circumstances as they unfolded.
The scathing report, the contents of which were secret until now, is the more striking because the investigation was conducted months before the Bureau of Prison’s decision to promote the warden, Herman Quay, who oversaw the fiasco, to a position with even more responsibility, overseeing twice as many people as a complex warden at Allenwood, Pennsylvania.
“It speaks for itself,” said Betsy Ginsberg, a professor at Cardozo School of Law and one of the lawyers representing the class in court. “They found that the warden who was overseeing this facility allowed this to go on, and instead of taking corrective action to safeguard the lives of the people in their care, they promoted him.”
The report, compiled by a dozen BOP officials from other offices and facilities, was shared with lawyers for people incarcerated at MDC Brooklyn, who are suing as part of a class action against the jail’s administration for conditions they endured during the crisis. The so-called after-action report was initially kept under seal, but lawyers for the class persuaded the judge overseeing the case to make the fact-finding and analysis sections available to the public. The recommendations section remains redacted and secret.
“I appreciate the honesty and integrity of this report, which stands in stark contrast to the MDC’s own representations concerning the blackout,” said Deirdre von Dornum, the attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders for the Eastern District of New York, who toured the facility with a federal judge at the height of the crisis. “But, I have no confidence that anything has changed at MDC. If there were a blackout during the current heat wave, I think it is likely we would see an exact repeat of these horrible conditions.”
The report found “a significant amount of mechanical neglect throughout the building,” and identifies “a lack of simple repairs and major system deficiencies … with often no urgency to identify or correct them in a timely fashion.”
“Overall, the systems were dirty and lacked the presence of regular preventative maintenance.”
When the BOP’s investigating team toured the jail, after the crisis had been declared resolved, the facility’s heating and cooling system remained a shambles, with 23 percent of the outside air dampers disabled or disconnected, 53 percent of the pressure gauges out of commission, and literally all of the heating system’s hot water recirculation pumps either not working or removed.
When the investigators asked staff about it, they were informed that many of those systems had been disconnected or offline for several years, though that fact was not reflected in annual inspections and reports.
“Overall,” the report’s authors found, “the systems were dirty and lacked the presence of regular preventative maintenance.”
The jail had plenty of money to perform necessary maintenance, the report found, but its staff didn’t know what they were doing. There was a “deficiency in competency levels,” the report found, and “discussions with staff yielded the absence of basic knowledge of systems related to their field. Other observations and interviews resulted in staff rationalizing the conditions and justifying why systems were not repaired or maintained in accordance with manufacturer standards.”
MDC staff also bungled the aftermath of the power and heating breakdowns, the report found. As news media sought clarity of what was happening behind the jail’s walls, it took the facility an average of more than 16 hours to respond to each press inquiry.
Even the people at BOP headquarters in the Legal Services department “did not receive timely responses to its repeated inquires to the Executive Staff.” Nor were the investigators able to find evidence they communicated what was going on with all the people in their custody, locked in dark cells.
The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to questions about the report and Quay’s promotion.
People interviewed by the BOP investigators agreed that “the manner in which the MDC handled this incident demonstrated a lack of transparency, communication, and some questioned the truthfulness of the information being provided.”
It’s not clear precisely who the BOP investigators spoke with to create this report, but it doesn’t appear that the incarcerated people who actually experienced the dark and freezing conditions were among them.
The report finds that “medical staff were responsive to the medical needs of the patient population during the incident,” which is difficult to square with the horrific record made by Judge Analisa Torres when she personally toured the facility with her court reporter during the crisis and spoke with incarcerated people whose medical conditions — from bloody colitis to suicidal psychiatric distress to putrefying gunshot wounds — were all going untreated by medical staff.
“One part of the report that is either disingenuous or flat out inaccurate is the claim that medical staff was responsive to incarcerated people’s medical needs during the blackout,” said von Dornum, of Federal Defenders. “As the report itself documents, people who could not breathe without their sleep apnea machines were left to gasp for air for days on end. Just as two additional examples of many, Judge Torres and I spoke directly to incarcerated persons with infected wounds receiving no care and to people with serious mental illnesses not receiving psychiatric medications, a week into the blackout.”
Nor does the report address the multiple allegations of food denial and violent retaliation incarcerated people reported being subjected to during and after the crisis.
Investigators appear to take at face value the claims by the very facilities staff they elsewhere deem incompetent that temperatures in cells quickly returned to safe and normal levels. The report’s authors leave unaddressed the fact that that staff made those measurements inconsistently at best and did so, as a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general found, using an instrument that doesn’t even actually measure air temperature.
Even so, lawyers representing the class of incarcerated people suing Quay, MDC’s facilities manager John Maffeo, and the United States will find much in the report to buttress their claims of incompetence and neglect.
“The report tells us what we’ve suspected all along,” said Ginsberg, the Cardozo Law professor, “that officials at the MDC were negligent in maintaining the mechanical systems of the facility, and that led to a state of disrepair that created this situation.”