Lawyers Blast Crisis at Brooklyn Jail After Power Outage

Prisoners plead for help from inside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility in Brooklyn where inmates have been without heat, hot water, electricity and proper sanitation following an electrical failure since Jan. 27. Family members and protesters turned out to call attention to the conditions on Feb. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Criticizing the week-long management of a power outage at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, defense attorneys brought a federal complaint Monday on behalf of the 1,600 inmates left in bitter cold this weekend.

The waterfront jail has been a bleaker place than usual since a fire on Jan. 27 in a switch gear room knocked out heat and power.

As a “polar vortex” swept east across the U.S., temperatures dropped to 2 degrees in Central Park on Thursday and remained below freezing.

The New York Times reported on Friday that the lack of heat left more than 1,000 inmates “frantic,” but also quoted a spokeswoman for Warden Herman Quay as saying that heat and hot water in the jail’s housing units were unaffected.

Represented by attorneys at Kaplan Hecker, the Federal Defenders of New York accuse the Bureau of Prison in Monday’s complaint of “false statements and stonewalling.”

“BOP officials were largely non-responsive,” attorney Sean Hecker wrote. “They refused to provide detailed or accurate information about the conditions at MDC or the reasons that legal visitations were cancelled.”

At a brief hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall issued a temporary restraining order on behalf of the plaintiffs to ensure that inmates can visit with their attorneys.

Hall denied the plaintiffs’ request for social visits, however, finding them not covered by the Sixth Amendment or the Administrative Procedure Act.

If the allegations of the conditions of confinement at the MDC prove accurate, Hall said they would be “constitutionally intolerable.”

Stressing that the challengers made no such request, however, Hall made no finding in that regard.

The crisis was documented this weekend by viral footage of protests outside the jail. As inmates banged on the walls to share their desperation, anxious family members rallied outside and honked car horns in apparent solidarity.

City Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn tweeted that he was inside the lobby of the building when an officer used pepper spray to push out family, politicians and members of the media.

Cahana Yehudah, foreground, of the Bronx, cries as she hears the response of prisoners held inside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility with all security levels in Brooklyn, New York. The prison has been without heat, hot water, electricity and good sanitation for several days, including during the recent frigid weather. Yehudah, who has a brother serving 18 months at the prison for gun possession, was one of many who gathered outside the complex on on Feb. 3, 2019, to draw attention to conditions. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Amid national news coverage, public outcry and condemnation from lawmakers, the Department of Justice announced that power had been restored on Sunday evening.

“With the heat and hot water operational, and the restoration of electrical power, the facility can now begin to return to regular operations,” spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle wrote in a statement. “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.”

Monday’s complaint seeks damages for violations of the inmates’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel, as well as the Administrative Procedure Act.

“There is a humanitarian crisis taking place at the main federal detention facility in this district,” the 11-page complaint states.

Among other issues, the Federal Defenders say inmates have reported “little or no heating, no or limited hot water, minimal access to electricity, and near total lack of access to certain medical services, telephones, televisions, computers, laundry, or commissary.”

“Inmates also reported that they smelled noxious fumes; some reported seeing BOP officers wearing masks,” the complaint states. “No masks were supplied to inmates.”

While Monday’s suit was filed in Brooklyn, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres directed prison officials on the other side of the bridge to account for “disturbing living conditions” inmates have reported.

The parties are set to appear before Torres in Manhattan for an evidentiary hearing on Tuesday morning at 11 a.m.

In Brooklyn meanwhile U.S. District Judge Margo Brodie will preside over a Feb. 13 hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction at 10:30 a.m.

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