NEW YORK ― Andrea Whitmire was starting to fear the worst. She hadn’t been able to get in touch with her husband, an inmate at Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, for days ― an unusual circumstance given their frequent communication.
She had last heard from him early Sunday morning. It was now Friday. Her sister-in-law couldn’t reach him either, and frantic calls to jail officials just went in circles. Then Whitmire checked social media.
Horrifying videos posted to Twitter showed MDC Brooklyn inmates banging on cell windows and using their reading lights to send makeshift S.O.S. signals to the outside world. The detainees were shouting that they had no heat as the so-called Polar Vortex whipped icy cold air across the city.
“I’m like, 'Oh my god, that’s where my husband is,” Whitmire told HuffPost. “That’s when I started panicking.”
She would soon learn a partial power outage on Jan. 27 had plunged parts of the federal detention center into total darkness, while inmates were locked in their cells for days as temperatures inside dipped to near freezing. What’s more, the jail barred detainees from receiving visitors or meeting with their legal counsel for nearly a week, claiming the power outage had cut electricity to the visitation room and computers.
Over the weekend, outraged community members protested outside MDC Brooklyn, which houses roughly 1,600 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trials and have not been convicted of a crime. Local politicians soon took notice, demanding jail officials take immediate action to fix the electrical system and provide generators and additional blankets to inmates.
Power was eventually restored on Feb. 3 ― a week after it went out and not without public pressure to expedite the repairs. The next day, Whitmire finally heard from her husband. He was OK.
Last week was a nightmare for the couple, but the facility’s total lack of urgency and empathy toward inmates was wholly unsurprising to them. Ask anyone who’s been detained there or knows someone who has, and they will likely agree.
“Animals get treated better,” Whitmire said.
‘A Humanitarian Crisis’
Conditions at the facility last week were “inhumane” and amounted to “a humanitarian crisis,” the Federal Defenders Of New York alleged in a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and MDC Brooklyn Warden Herman Quay filed on Monday. The suit alleged that inmates’ right to legal counsel had been violated by their inability to contact their attorneys, and it accused officials of making false statements about what was happening inside. In response to the lawsuit, a federal judge in Brooklyn ordered MDC Brooklyn to allow lawyers to visit their detained clients.
The warden had said in a statement Feb. 1 that “inmates have not been confined to their cells” and that “heat is in the high 60s and low 70s.”
But Federal Defenders of New York’s attorney-in-chief Deirdre von Dornum visited the facility later that day and discovered the jail was “very cold” and that vents were actually blowing cold air into one unit within the facility. Some cells were in total darkness, she said.
Temperatures in New York last week dropped as low as 10 degrees some days. Whitmire’s husband said on Tuesday that it was so cold inside the facility last week that inmates were layering themselves with all the clothes they owned and wrapping towels around their faces to try and stay warm.
The Bureau of Prisons, which operates MDC Brooklyn, said the power outage didn’t impact the heating system. But inmates, their lawyers and local politicians who toured the facility last week said it was brutally cold inside.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a public briefing Monday that he suspects the jail’s heating system was never adequate and that last week’s so-called Polar Vortex ― not the power outage ― had exacerbated the issue.
Nadler said Quay, the warden, told him over the weekend that it was possible the whole heating system needed to be replaced, but doing so would require approval from BOP. But according to Nadler, when asked if he had submitted the request to BOP, Quay said no.
Neither MDC Brooklyn nor the BOP responded to requests for comment about conditions at the facility.
“I was struck by the absolute lack of urgency or caring on the part of leadership,” Nadler said.
‘It’s Like A Zoo In There’
The power outage may have exacerbated problems with medical care as well. The facility did not provide CPAP machines to inmates with sleep apnea who rely on them for respiratory support during much of the power outage, Nadler said during the public briefing Monday. When Nadler asked him why not, he said Quay told him that “no one raised the question.”
The breathing machines were up and running again by Sunday, but the gap in functionality put inmates at serious risk, the congressman said.
“Someone could have had a stroke or died,” Nadler said.
Abigail Perez, whose fiance is diabetic and has some mental health issues, began to wonder if he was sent to the hospital or if he had died when their email correspondence stopped.
She finally heard from him via email on Monday. He said he was OK, but his medications had been given to him late. He wasn’t sure why.
There’s strong reason to believe that [MDC Brooklyn] officials gave false information to members of Congress and the public. New York City Councilman Brad Lander (D)
MDC Brooklyn has consistently provided her fiance with inadequate medical care, she said. Though she said he saw a mental health counselor during his roughly 18-month detention at Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, he hasn’t had access to one since being transferred to MDC Brooklyn in December.
She’s anxious to hear more details about what went down last week when she’s able to visit him next week. Perez, like other family members of inmates, said detainees try not to complain about jail conditions over the phone or in emails because MDC Brooklyn monitors these communications.
“It’s like a zoo in there ― crazy,” Perez said. “It’s very dirty. ... Sometimes there’s no heat, no hot water. Sometimes they lock them down and won’t give them breakfast until the afternoon.”
“We’re not asking them to be a five-star hotel,” she added. “Just treat them as humans.”
Vermin, Roaches, Scabies
Several people familiar with MDC Brooklyn’s conditions told HuffPost that vermin and cockroach sightings in the facility are common. The sister of an inmate, who spoke to HuffPost on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said her brother has gotten scabies in there.
“The air in there is completely stiff,” she said. “There’s barely any circulation in there. ... My brother hasn’t seen the sunlight in the two years since he’s been there.”
MDC Brooklyn notoriously offers few amenities to inmates. There are few, if any, classes or recreational activities and detainees do not have access to an outdoor space. Some areas have mesh grates above a 10-foot or so wall to allow inmates access to fresh air ― the same cage-like spaces where inmates were seen begging for help last week.
During the power outage, some inmates were left in their cells for days, said von Dornum, the attorney for Federal Defenders of New York. Detainees had not received clean clothing or bedding since Jan. 27, and one inmate was forced to sleep on bedding that was covered in blood due to his ulcerative colitis, von Dornum said.
Several sources who spoke to HuffPost said correctional officers have been known to retaliate against inmates who complain about alleged mistreatment within the facility.
“It happens all the time,” the sister of an inmate told HuffPost. “MDC’s a really, really tough place. This isn’t like any other prison. It’s designed to break you.”
David Patton, executive director of Federal Defenders of New York, said there’s “definitely” a culture of guards retaliating against inmates. He has heard reports recently that detainees who cried for help during the Polar Vortex last week have been put in solitary confinement.
“It’s an awful place to do time,” Patton told HuffPost. “Until you get to something like a super [maximum security prison], there’s nothing worse than MDC.”
The detention center gets away with it because “there’s no accountability,” he said.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act, a federal law enacted in 1996, has effectively curtailed the ability of prisoners to bring claims of unconstitutional conditions and abusive conduct to court except in extreme circumstances.
These systemic failures within MDC Brooklyn and BOP-run prisons nationwide disproportionately impact communities of color. Black people make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population but 40 percent of the country’s incarcerated population. Hispanic people make up 19 percent of the incarcerated population and white people 39 percent of it.
The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General announced Thursday that it is conducting an inspection and review of BOP’s management of the electrical and heating issues that occurred at MDC Brooklyn last week.
“The OIG will assess how those issues occurred, whether BOP has in place adequate contingency plans for such an incident, and how they affected prisoners’ conditions of confinement and access to counsel,” the agency’s statement said. “The OIG will also assess steps BOP management officials took to address and resolve those issues.”
But Patton said he has “no confidence that they’re going to do the kind of searching inquiry that’s necessary here to make real and lasting change.”
The Federal Defenders of New York are calling for an independent monitor outside of the Justice Department to investigate what happened last week.
New York City Councilman Brad Lander (D), who toured MDC Brooklyn on Saturday, suggested a Justice Department Inspector General’s investigation, as requested by Nadler and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), will lead to further answers and accountability for prison officials.
“It does feel like there is something especially wrong ... at the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” he said. “There’s strong reason to believe that prison officials gave false information to members of Congress and the public.”
Kahdeidra Martin, whose brother is detained at MDC Brooklyn, is worried that doing time there will have a lasting psychological impact on him. She fears that dehumanizing treatment toward the inmates will only make things worse, and wants the city and federal government to provide psychological assessments of the inmates in the wake of last week’s crisis.
“They may already be feeling like people have given up on them or the world has forgotten about them,” she said. “And then they’re being allowed to freeze?”
This story has been updated to include a statement from the Justice Department.