Frigid Week in Heatless Jail Ends With Mass Protests

A demonstrator holds a sign in support for the detainees inside MDC.  Eagle  photo by David Brand.

A demonstrator holds a sign in support for the detainees inside MDC. Eagle photo by David Brand.

By David Brand

After a frigid week without heat or electricity inside Sunset Park’s huge Metropolitan Detention Center, power was restored Sunday night — but not before hundreds of detainees’ loved ones, activists and local leaders condemned the “inhumane” conditions inside the federal facility, which houses 1,600 inmates and pretrial detainees.

“This is an injustice. This is inhumane,” said Brooklyn resident Mikey Michelle as she painted a sign of support for the detainees on Sunday. “Heat is a human right.”

The power outage at the jail first attracted widespread attention on Friday — more than four days after the heat went out — as detainees banged on the frosted windows of their cells to communicate with demonstrators outside. On Sunday, a handful of detainees pressed against common area windows and shouted down to loved ones outside who were prevented from entering the facility.

“I’ve been locked in a cell for four days,” one man shouted. “Thank you for giving me a voice.”

“It’s me, mom. It’s your son. I love you,” another yelled. “I’m right here.”

Family members responded through megaphone or handwritten signs, which they held aloft on the street outside the facility. Other demonstrators read messages from family and friends who came to support detainees and struggled to get information about their loved ones.

“I have no idea how he’s doing — if he’s ok, if he’s sick,” said Heidy Machuca, a Bronx resident whose brother Giovanni Torres, 23, is detained at MDC while he awaits trial on gang-related charges. “We don’t know anything, and we haven’t heard from him since Monday.”

The scene outside the jail turned briefly chaotic Sunday afternoon when several family members, activists, politicians and reporters attempted to enter the building. Bureau of Prisons security staff inside the lobby aggressively repelled the crowd, and at least one guard doused some demonstrators with pepper spray.

NYPD officers helped BOP staff herd protestors and set up barricades around the entrance. Several defense attorneys who entered the building to meet with their clients left coughing or covering their mouths with their shirts.

“We’re not getting any information. It’s straight up torture in the middle of New York City,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris told the Eagle.

Gianaris avoided being hit with the chemical spray when he attempted to enter the facility. He was later allowed inside, along with U.S. Reps. Nydia Velazquez, Yvette Clarke and Jerrold Nadler, New York State Attorney General Letitia James and Councilmember Brad Lander.

During a press briefing Monday, Velazquez said she is drafting a letter to the Department of Justice Inspector General asking the DOJ to “assess how this breakdown in leadership happened and why an emergency response to this crisis was not activated.”

“My focus is going to be not just determining how this happened but how to determine this never happens again,” she said, adding that the lack of urgency was part of broader systemic issues at MDC. “I think there is a culture at MDC that is contributing to this problem.”

David Patton, the executive director and attorney-in-chief of the Federal Defenders of New York, said attorney visitation was cancelled Sunday after the pepper spray incident and again Monday after a threat, which was reportedly a bomb threat. Family visitation had not resumed as of Monday evening, he said.

Patton said attorneys continue receiving complaints about a lack of heat in cells and problems with medical care.

“These problems are long standing and I’m glad there’s an appetite to stay with this,” Patton said.

Jayden Castillio of Sunset Park holds sign in support of his father, who is detained at MDC.  Eagle  photo by Todd Maisel.

Jayden Castillio of Sunset Park holds sign in support of his father, who is detained at MDC. Eagle photo by Todd Maisel.

Federal officials said old infrastructure caused the power and heat outage. The contractor hired to fix the system’s broken equipment was away and would return Tuesday, BOP said.

Councilmember Jumaane Williams, a candidate for public advocate, condemned the lack of preparedness and urgency at the facility, which has been the target of several abuse allegations. In 2011 and again in August 2018, the Daily News reported on medical neglect inside the jail.

“What surprised me the most in there was the blatant disregard of urgency for anything that was going on,” William told detainees and demonstrators. “Things happen, emergencies happen, but you have a plan. They had no plan and didn’t seem to care … Get another contractor and get this fixed like it was your house.”

Though the heat is back on, advocates will have to continue pressing for humane treatment of detainees, said Lander.

“We will have to be vigilant to make sure the heat in this building is fixed,” Lander said.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers called for “an immediate and comprehensive investigation” by the Department of Justice.

“It shocks the conscience to think that more than 1,600 people in the custody of the American government could be allowed to endure this,” said NACDL President Drew Findling. “While power outages happen, so do contingency plans to address such events. Instead, what we bear witness to in Brooklyn, New York, appears consistent with a growing culture of cruelty and indifference to human suffering against which we all must be vigilant. The handling of this situation at MDC was self-evidently horrific and nightmarish. The thing truly does speak for itself. What we need now is a thorough and ultimately public investigation of this entire episode so that we can make sure this never happens again in the United States of America.”

On Sunday evening, DOJ stated that the agency would investigate the problem.

“The electrical power at the Bureau of Prisons facility at MDC Brooklyn was restored at approximately 6:30 pm Sunday evening,” said DOJ spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle. “With the heat and hot water operational, and the restoration of electrical power, the facility can now begin to return to regular operations. In the coming days, the department will work with the Bureau of Prisons to examine what happened and ensure the facility has the power, heat and backup systems in place to prevent the problem from reoccurring.”