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Power Outage in Detention Center Considered a “Humanitarian Crisis”

Banging filled the halls of the Metropolitan Detention Center late January, the sound carrying out to the street below where human right activists and others gathered to protest. From early January, the Brooklyn facility has been without power and heat for days. The banging was the prisoners themselves, slamming on their cell walls and window to let the city, and the world, know their unfortunate condition.

The incident gained public attention on Sunday, Jan. 27 after an unattended electric panel caught fire, plunging the prison into darkness and frigid temperatures, exacerbating the already-present heating issues which caused temperatures to drop as early as Jan. 5. The approximately 1,600 inmates inside were left without lighting, warm food, warm water, or heat amidst the polar vortex that sent New York temperatures into the single digits. According to weather reports, temperatures outside the facility dropped as low as 2 degrees, and it is unknown how low the temperatures inside the prison dropped. The power issue, which was initially considered by prison officials to be an easy fix, lasted until Sunday, Feb. 4. During that time, prisoners were kept in the cold and dark without visiting rights or proper medical attention.

In response to the circumstances, which the New York Public Defense Office is calling a “humanitarian crisis,” activists and inmate’s relatives gathered outside the prison carrying signs and shouting support to prisoners through windows. Several protesters attempted to enter the building on account of the prisoner’s sixth amendment rights to visitors and right to aid of counsel for defense, but were pepper sprayed by prison guards.

The protests culminated with a bomb threat on Sunday, Feb. 4 at 10:45 a.m., which was investigated and deemed false by authorities.

Meanwhile, prison officials denied both the extent of the problem and their responsibility for it. In an email with the New York Times a representative of the prison wrote, that “All housing units have functional lighting,” and “Heat and hot water has not been impacted. Likewise, inmate meals are not impacted; inmates are receiving regularly scheduled hot meals each day.” Her report, as well as other employees at the prison, contradict the testimonies of the inmates, many of whom contacted their public defenders about conditions before the ability to use the phones was lost.

Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, who does not have jurisdiction over the federal facility, called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the situation, saying  “Prisoners in New York are human beings. Let’s treat them that way.” A spokesperson for the Department of Justice responded with a statement saying that the department would investigate the conditions and the alleged neglect of the prisoner’s sixth amendment rights.

Power was restored on Feb. 4 and charges were filed against the detention facility by Kaplan Hecker & Fink on behalf of the Federal Defenders. Dave Patton, executive director of the Federal Defenders released in a statement that  “The conditions at the MDC and the behavior of the officials in charge are disgraceful and inhumane and represent wholesale violations of our clients’ constitutional rights.” The lawsuit is expected to go forward with support from the prisoners, activists and general community.

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