Hundreds of inmates became sick and “frantic” as heat failed in a Brooklyn jail during the recent polar vortex. The temperature in New York City was as low as two degrees, but more than 1,000 inmates had neither heat nor power during this perilous cold spell.
The Metropolitan Detention Center (“MDC”), near Brooklyn’s especially cold waterfront, has within its walls high-profile inmates held on terrorism and drug trafficking charges, along with the many awaiting trial for more mundane crimes. For the past few days, they’ve all had one thing in common: they’re freezing, and little has been done about it.
Not Enough Blankets or Clothing
Jail officials blame the electric outage on Con Edison, but the electric utility denies that allegation. A Con Edison spokesman says they had not experienced in that area of Brooklyn during the cold spell, and the outage resulted from an internal problem that MDC electricians are responsible for fixing.
According to union leaders from the American Federation of Government Employees - representing about 500 corrections officers at the MDC – power and heat issues aren’t related, with the latter occurring because of units drawing water for the boilers freezing. The electrical problems have been ongoing since the beginning of the year, and although an electrical panel was repaired, it caught fire just before the onset of the polar vortex.
No matter whose fault the outage is, the fact remains that the MDC does not have adequate amounts of extra blankets or clothing on hand to keep freezing inmates warm. Union officials said inmates are basically huddled in their beds, trying to stay warm, and wearing whatever they could.
That means inmates have on all of their socks, wrapped towels around their bodies, and did anything possible to protect themselves from the brutal cold.
Older inmates are particularly vulnerable. A union official says she’s received complaints of illness from some elderly inmates, and she’s seen that they look and act sickly. For safety reasons, all inmates are on partial lockdown.
Because of the heat and electrical issues, the MDC switched to “emergency power” mode, which leaves cells dark and corridors dimly lit, and cells barely heated. Some floors of the cell had more heat than others, but none were within normal temperatures.
Hot water was generally unavailable, and meals were served cold. A federal defender filed an emergency motion to remove an inmate whose asthma was aggravated by the cold. The inmate, a recent arrival, had only a short-sleeved jumpsuit with an undershirt beneath it to keep warm in the single-digit temperatures.
No Response from MDC
One of the most appalling issues with this public emergency is the lack of response from the MDC. The federal defenders asked for more blankets and backup heating but received no response from the MDC. They also asked that the male inmates move to an adjacent female prison, which has electricity and heat and is underutilized.
Again, no response from the MDC. Elected officials, including Rep. Nydia M. Velasquez and Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, say they are investigating. Maybe the MDC will respond to them.
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