After days of protests, a Brooklyn detention center has finally restored power — but there’s still no clear sign the heating is fixed.
Just after 6:00 p.m. Sunday night, the lights in the the Metropolitan Detention Center flickered back on and the crowd protesting outside cheered. Though the lights are now on, there are concerns that conditions inside the facility won’t necessarily improve and there are reports that parts of the prison still do not have heat.
Hundreds of protesters have rallied outside the Metropolitan Detention Center over the last week, demanding that power and heat be restored. On Sunday, police guards pepper sprayed protesters attempting to enter the facility, including family members and legal defenders. Many of the families attempting to enter the prison were at their wits’ end after a week of barred visits (a violation of the inmates’ Sixth Amendment rights) and alarming reports about the worsening conditions.
According to The New York Times, around 1,600 inmates were held in “freezing cells” that dipped below 34 degrees for more than a week. Inmates told legal defenders they had no power and no heat, and many of them were growing sick. Nearly all were worried that conditions would not improve since things had begun to go downhill early last month.
When initially pressed for a response, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) claimed no such thing was even happening. They said that a “partial power outage” at the prison was the fault of the local power company, and the prison was making up for it by relying on emergency power. The power company denied the claim and said it’s a maintenance issue the center’s own electricians need to address.
According to the president of the local chapter of the prison’s union, Anthony Sanon, the problem was twofold: Heating units that used water from boilers started having issues when those units froze. Meanwhile, the power outages were the result of an electrical panel that blew out last month and after being left unattended caught on fire last Sunday. The New York Fire Department confirmed that it responded to a fire in the jail’s control room last Sunday.
The warden’s spokesperson, and the BOP both claimed that the scene inside was not as being depicted by the prisoners. The disconnect in stories only increased the concern among families, legal defenders, and activists.
Over the weekend, lawmakers, politicians, and activists called for action and mass protests were held outside the center.
Spoke with the Federal Bureau of Prisons earlier to make sure they know I'm closely monitoring this. Discussed timeline for restoring heat and access to lawyers. Was assured I’ll get updates on the status and better answers — will share more soon. https://t.co/wpxaUMPdV4
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) February 2, 2019
— marisa kabas (@MarisaKabas) February 3, 2019
New York City is sending trucks with hundreds of blankets and hand warmers to the Metropolitan Detention Center NOW and generators are being readied for transport. We've told the Federal Bureau of Prisons the supplies are coming – whether they like it or not.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) February 3, 2019
Despite reports that the Metropolitan Detention center are operating business as usual, organizers say otherwise.
Shahana Hanif, a Brooklyn native and community organizer, who has been on the scene since Friday told ThinkProgress that the heat still seems to be irregular throughout the facility. A contractor affiliated with the facility was there Sunday night, and it appeared to those gathered, including Hanif, that essential parts were missing.
Even though he didn’t provide amazing news, she says his presence still felt like a good sign.
“It seems like there’s a rush on this now, but that urgency is the result of the protesters who are on the ground. Otherwise it seems like the weekend would have just passed and this would have been something that was just on the back burner,” said Hanif.
Though the question remains, why did it take days of protests for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to maintain basic conditions at one of their facilities?
The truth is: this kind of thing happens far too often, and prisons generally refuse to meet inmates’ basic needs.
Last April, a prison riot in South Carolina left seven inmates dead and 17 injured. There weren’t enough guards at the initial time the riot broke out — two in fact — and to add to the devastation, they waited four hours before intervening. Which begs the questions: If guards are there to maintain the safety of the inmates, why aren’t they doing it?
As last summer winded down, prisoners across the nation went on strike to bring awareness to the poor conditions they face. During the strike — which lasted from August 21 to September 9 — prisoners refused to work, and many refused to eat. They were demanding better conditions but also shedding light on the increasingly exploitative labor practices. (See: prisoners being forced to fight wildfires in California.)
In 1971, the infamous Attica Prison Uprising left at least 43 people dead, including ten correctional officers and employees. At the time, one of the prisoners, L.D. Barkley, attempted to restore order and declared, “We are not beats, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) — who toured the Metropolitan Detention Center over the weekend — said on a press call Monday, “We have to make sure that the right of every citizen is protected even when you’re in detention.”
Velazquez also said that even elected officials were being provided with inaccurate information. She was not initially given total transparency on the status of inmate lockdowns.
Rep. Jerrod Nadler (D-NY) described the air coming in from the heating system as cool, despite the system being set to as high as 190 degrees. According to him, the warden claimed arranging for a new heating system was beyond him and that a formal request had not been made with the BOP.
While a full restoration of the heat remains to be seen, organizers on the ground say a police corridor is obstructing protesters and family from getting on the grounds. There were also reports of bomb threats earlier Monday morning — which could be a tactic to discourage protests. Although officials claimed family visitation would run as usual starting Monday, it has not yet been fully permitted due to the bomb threat. The Legal Aid Society has been monitoring interactions between families and prison officials and the NYPD. A representative from the Federal Defenders of New York said that he learned of an inmate receiving an emergency bail application due to an asthma related emergency.
Hanif did point out something important: This isn’t just any story of protesters and organizers working to create change, it’s also one of black and brown communities coming together for a larger cause. Hanif, a Muslim Brooklynite, emphasized that the prison’s population consists of black and brown community members of all walks of life and faiths.
“It’s important to realize for myself and for other Muslims in this community how much our community builds in solidarity with black communities and black Muslim communities. People of all faith backgrounds, diversities, multi-brown and black are in this facility, including women,” Hanif said.
Also on Monday, New York-based defense lawyers filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on behalf of the public defenders’ office calling what happened a “humanitarian crisis.”