By David Brand
Following reports of more heat outages at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, activists have renewed demonstrations and monitoring efforts outside the federal jail, which went without power and heat amid record-low temperatures last month.
On Friday, Federal Defenders of New York supervising attorney Deirdre von Dornum told the Daily News that she had “firsthand knowledge” that at least three units in MDC lacked heat.
Attorneys and activists contacted by the Eagle Monday morning said they could not yet confirm accounts of heat outages at the jail. The previous heat outage, which lasted from Jan. 27 until Feb. 4, prompted large protests inside and outside the facility as freezing detainees banged on their cell windows to signal to demonstrators — including loved ones and prominent elected officials — outside the jail’s walls.
Following Friday’s reported heat outage, the grassroots group No New Jails NYC released a form for volunteers to sign up for shifts to support family members, take notes and track emergency vehicles outside the facility. The six daily shifts were scheduled to begin Saturday, March 2, and will last from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. each day until March 15.
“MDC is back without heat! We are back occupying the space! Please sign up for shifts today!,” activist Brittany Williams tweeted Saturday, with a link to sign up.
The activism outside the jail is scheduled to proceed even though the Bureau of Prisons says the heat is actually functioning properly
“Contrary to media reports, the heat at MDC Brooklyn is fully operational and the institution is operating normally,” BOP told the Eagle in an email.
No New Jails NYC encourages volunteers to bring a pencil, notebook, signs and tape, blankets and hand- and foot-warmers. The group also laid out ground rules for volunteers to follow.
“First and Foremost: We will not agitate. We will not instigate. We will not jeopardize the safety of our community members. We know the actions we hold on the outside, impact those who are held on the inside,” No New Jails wrote on a volunteer information sheet shared as a Google doc. “We are asking all groups to center families. Please note this is not about politics. We are asking all groups to work toward protecting the rights of detainees and keep their family member safe.”
Last month, hundreds of detainees’ loved ones and their advocates joined local leaders to condemn the “inhumane” conditions inside the federal facility, which houses 1,600 people, mostly pretrial detainees.
“This is an injustice. This is inhumane,” said Brooklyn resident Mikey Michelle, who painted a sign of support for the detainees on Feb. 3. “Heat is a human right.”
U.S. Reps. Nydia Velazquez, Yvette Clarke and Jerrold Nadler, New York State Attorney General Letitia James, Councilmember Brad Lander and state Sen. Michael Gianaris each toured the facility on Feb. 3. Public Advocate-elect Jumaane Williams and other leaders participated in the demonstrations and spoke to detainees through a megaphone.
The scene turned briefly chaotic that afternoon when a BOP security staff member doused demonstrators with pepper spray when they attempted to enter the building.
The spray struck a few of the detainees’ family members, activists and reporters. NYPD officers helped BOP staff propel protesters away from the entrance and set up barricades. Several defense attorneys who were allowed to enter the building left coughing or covering their mouths with their shirts.
Heat and electricity were finally restored at the facility on Feb. 3 — roughly a week after the aging boilers first broke in the building. Attorneys and family members were allowed to resume meeting with detainees on the evening of Feb. 4.
During a conference call with elected officials, activists and reporters on Feb. 4, David Patton, the executive director and attorney-in-chief of the Federal Defenders of New York, urged community members to continue monitoring the problems at MDC.
“These problems are long-standing, and I’m glad there’s an appetite to stay with this,” Patton said.