On Monday morning, attorneys for inmates in Brooklyn sued Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) warden Herman Quay and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for "inhumane" and unconstitutional conditions due to a lack of power and heat during an especially cold week in New York. Activists protested outside the facility over the weekend before power came back on.
According to a statement by Wyn Hornbuckle, the deputy director of public affairs at the Department of Justice, power was restored at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. "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," Hornbuckle said. A BOP spokesperson tells Bustle: "We do not comment on matters that are the subject of legal proceedings or pending litigation."
On Feb. 6, the BOP emailed an additional statement to Bustle, confirming an investigation of the facility's infrastructure will happen:
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) are committed to the safe and humane living and working conditions of all inmates and employees. In response to last week’s power outage and other facility issues at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York, the Department has requested that the OIG undertake a review of this matter to determine if BOP responded appropriately to the heat and electricity failures at MDC Brooklyn and to assess whether BOP has in place adequate contingency plans for such an incident. The BOP will also conduct a thorough investigation of the infrastructure at the facility and review the emergency response and contingency planning for this type of incident. DOJ and BOP will continue to work to ensure that MDC Brooklyn meets all required standards.
On Jan. 27, there was a fire at MDC, which resulted in what the BOP called "partial power outage" in the building that houses male inmates, according to the lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of the Federal Defenders of New York's detained clients at MDC. The facility in Sunset Park in Brooklyn houses more than 1,600 persons before their trials, according to NBC News. Those imprisoned include high-level detainees among their ranks, but many are "comparatively anonymous New Yorkers," according to The New York Times.
Beyond the lack of heat when New York City's temperature dipped into single digits, the lawsuit alleged that legal and familial visitations for male inmates had been nearly entirely canceled. "The Defendants' deprivation of MDC detainees' constitutional rights has caused and is causing irreparable harm to the Federal Defenders and its clients," according to the filing.
"Defendants' response to the fire has been woefully inadequate. They have been slow to acknowledge the problem and have not taken sufficient steps to obtains temporary supplies of electricity or heat, or to repair the damage," according to the filing. You can read the entire filing here.
The filing also alleged that BOP "issued misleading statements to the public and the courts" about the conditions people imprisoned in MDC were living under. The suit stated that legal visitations (along with social) was canceled on Jan. 28 through Feb. 2. But after "less than four hours" after legal visits began again "visiting attorneys began to smell a strong chemical scent and starting coughing" because "pepper spray was dispersed in the visiting room," according to the lawsuit. A report from Gothamist and WNYC on Sunday reported that protesters outside the facility were also pepper sprayed.
The lawsuit called the circumstances — including alleged "materially false and/or misleading" statements by warden Quay — a "humanitarian crisis" at the facility. The plaintiffs are asking the facility to resume normal visiting schedules for family and legal representation as well as a "special master" to evaluate the conditions under which the detained persons are living, according to The New York Times.
"We are asking the court to intervene immediately on behalf of the many hundreds of individuals who are detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center and entrusted to the government's care," an attorney for the federal defenders, David E. Patton, told The Times in a statement.
This article has been updated.