Inmates Offer Harrowing Testimony on Brooklyn Jail Blackout

MANHATTAN (CN) – An inmate suffering from colitis and an open wound complained he could not get his bloody sheets replaced. Another man shot at the time of his arrest told his attorney that he needed a new bandage because the last had filled with pus. A man suffering from seizures managed during an attack to press the emergency button in his cell. Nobody came.

Having gone all week without heat, hot water, electricity and proper sanitation due to an electrical failure, prisoners at the Metropolitan Detention Center respond to family members and protesters who turned out to call attention to the conditions on Feb. 3, 2019, in Brooklyn, New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

These were some of the gruesome vignettes shared Tuesday as a federal judge heard more than four hours of testimony about the institutional breakdown suffered by the Metropolitan Detention Center after a fire on Jan. 27 caused a week-long power outage.

“I’ve never heard that sound outside the MDC, ever,” said social worker Vivienne Guevara, describing how she heard inmates clanging from inside the walls as she walked outside the Brooklyn jail on Feb. 1.

U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres, one of several federal jurists looking into possible civil rights violations in the prison, admitted Guevara’s recording of the episode into evidence.

“It was shocking to hear,” Guevara said. “It’s not a sound that you normally hear.”

But Guevara, who has worked for six years with the Federal Defenders of New York, recognized the desperation it evoked: “It sounded like a cry for help.”

Another witness, former inmate Miguel Cruz, described a scene of 24-hour darkness inside his cell.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “It’s horrible. I don’t like it.”

Unable to shower or use the phone, Cruz said: “You can’t even press the emergency button because [no one] would respond.”

It took 72 hours for the water to come back on but Cruz said conditions remained fraught.

“I wasn’t going to take a shower in frozen water,” he said.

Since the power outage knocked out the jail’s monitored phone system for inmates, Cruz said he could not speak to his family what was happening.

“It was stressful,” Cruz said. “They’re the only people who make me feel comfortable.”

The power had not yet been restored by Jan. 30, the day of Cruz’s release, and he recalled the shock of seeing the outside world.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I was crying.”

For Donnell Murray, a current MDC inmate, the hardship remains ongoing.

Murray said that he has not been able to meet with his attorney since early January, and his trial is just around the corner.

“Do you feel ready for trial in your case, sir?” asked Sarah Kunstler, an accomplished defense attorney following in the footsteps of her father, radical lawyer Bill Kunstler.

“No, I don’t,” Murray replied.

On Monday, the Federal Defenders of New York filed a civil lawsuit in Brooklyn accusing the Bureau of Prisons of depriving their clients of the constitutional right to counsel. At least five federal judges in Manhattan and Brooklyn have heard similar cases.

Beyond his due-process concerns, Murray said he worried about his safety.

“It was hard on me because it was dark,” he said. “It was cold. I was nervous.”

Multiple MDC staffers also feared that the power outage would compromise security.

June Bencebi, a case manager at MDC and union treasurer, said the power outage meant that inmate interactions occurd in darkness.

“It isn’t a safe situation for the staff,” Bencebi said.

Lighting issues also impeded the ability to detect contraband, added Anthony Sanon, the president of the union representing the jail’s officials. He said that the problems affected the entire building.

“That includes staff-only floors?” defense attorney Ezra Spilke asked him.

“That includes everybody,” Sanon replied.

Rhonda Barnwell, who has worked for more than a decade in the jail’s medical department, testified that the problem would have remained the same if not for national press attention.

“I’m thinking that if the media didn’t come, we’d still be in the same situation,” she said.

Barnwell and other witnesses reported that the jail’s heating problems predated the fire by at least a week.

New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams testified that the most “astonishing thing” for him was the lack of urgency.

“Where is your plan?” he recalled asking. “You don’t seem to have a plan.”

After calling Mayor Bill de Blasio, Williams said, the city trucked over extra blankets to the jail, but the prison never distributed them.

For now, the Department of Justice’s plan appears to be downplay the scope of the problem. The government still denies that MDC experienced any heating issues during the blackout, and its attorneys unsuccessfully tried to delay today’s proceedings.

Dierdre von Dornum, the attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders of New York, told the judge that her personal experiences and those of her clients discredit the rose-colored outlook of MDC Warden Herman Quay.

“There was frost on people’s windows,” von Dornum testified.

“People were begging me to call their lawyers,” she added. “So, I have personal knowledge that what the warden said was false.”

John Ross, a supervisory special agent for the Department of Justice, insisted that the temperature seemed “fine.”

Kunstler handily undermined that comment with a question about the witness’s wardrobe.

After Ross said that he wore an overcoat on the day of his tour, Kunstler asked: “Are you wearing an overcoat today?”

“No,” Ross, clad in a suit, acknowledged.

Judge Torres adjourned proceedings to tour the Brooklyn prison, and she said she may reconvene the hearing later.

The proceedings then took a roughly five-hour recess for Judge Torres to visit the Brooklyn jail with the attorneys and other distinguished guests. New York Attorney General Letitia James accompanied them on the tour, along with Warden Quay and some of the witnesses.

“I felt it imperative that I conduct a full evidentiary hearing and an inspection at MDC,” Torres said upon her return that evening.

Joined by her law clerks and a court stenographer, Torres interviewed the inmates with her delegation. Two of those who had seen the jail before – von Dornum and Ross – both reported that the heating and lighting had improved, with freshly scrubbed floors.

“Before, they were quite dirty,” von Dornum said.

Ultimately, a day of fact-finding resulted in little action, and Torres found no need to intervene personally intervene. Another federal judge imposed a restraining order the previous day to mandate attorney-client visits, and a separate lawsuit seeks a court-appointed special master to oversee the MDC.

“So, that specific relief is requested in the complaint filed by the Federal Defenders in the Eastern District of New York,” Torres found, denying that request.

Urging the judge to reconsider, Spilke told her: “This is bigger than one [corrections officer]. One captain. One warden.”

But Torres was unmoved. Before adjourning proceedings in time for the State of the Union address delivered Tuesday night by President Donald Trump, the judge gave the attorneys another chance for their clients to be transferred to another institution.

%d bloggers like this: