In the winter of 2019, the conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn were dire. Freezing temperatures and lack of maintenance caused inmates to bang on windows and flash SOS signals via lights to alert those on the streets below to their plight. Those housed in the cells were forced to wrap themselves in their bedding to stay warm. Those with medical issues were left untreated. Temperatures in the New York City area were as low as 2°.
MDC Warden Herman Quay was accused of giving misleading information –or lying– about the severity of the situation at the time. Now an internal report made public by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which oversees the MDC, criticizes Quay’s response to the emergency.
Quay has since been promoted. He oversees a facility with twice the inmate population of the MDC in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. The investigation was conducted before his promotion, which makes the decision to award Quay with even more responsibilities troubling.
Those incarcerated at the MDC have filed a class-action lawsuit against the facility’s administration for their suffering during this colossal failure.
Over 1,000 Inmates Affected
More than 1,000 inmates were affected by the partial power outage that lasted for more than a week, causing a lack of heat and hot water. The BOP indicated that Con Edison, the energy company supplying power to the facility, was at fault. A Con Edison spokesman denied it had experienced power problems during the cold spell. Instead, he called it an internal problem for the MDC, which their electricians would have to fix.
Inmates flooded the phone lines of federal defenders as the temperatures plunged and conditions deteriorated. They reported a lack of heat and hot water and no lighting in the cells.
One defender said the inmates were scared, because they did not have access to extra blankets or warm clothing. Inmates also complained of illness.
Unrelated Heat and Power Issues
According to the corrections officers union leaders, the lack of heat and lack of power were unrelated. The former started when units drawing water from the boilers froze. The latter originated the previous month when an electrical panel blew out. Although repaired, it caught fire not long afterward.
Although jail officials said inmates were receiving hot meals during the crisis, inmates denied that was the case. The extra blankets promised to inmates never arrived. Some of the inmates were attired in short-sleeved jumpsuits.
No Urgency to Make Repairs or Correct Deficiencies
The report finds there was a “significant amount” of mechanical neglect at the MDC. There were relatively simple repairs that were not fixed, and major system deficiencies were uncorrected. After the emergency was resolved, investigators found that nearly a quarter of the building’s outside air dampers did not work. More than half of its pressure gauges were out of commission. None of the hot water recirculation pumps in the heating system were functional.
Staff admitted many of those deficiencies had existed for years. The systems had not been cleaned or had necessary preventive maintenance done. It was not due to lack of funds, as the MDC had the money. Instead, the report found “a deficiency in competency levels.” In plain English, MDC staff did not know what they were doing. Investigator interviews found that staff lacked basic knowledge of the systems in the facility.
Yet, the warden received a promotion.