A power outage turned a Brooklyn federal detention center into a dark and frigid fortress in the midst of freezing temperatures last week. Now, federal public defense attorneys have responded with a civil rights lawsuit.
For a week, inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, suffered in misery due to an electrical-fire-caused power outage that dated back to Jan. 27. The prison was put on lockdown and the 1,600 inmates there were denied access to both family and attorneys.
Technically, the lawsuit filed Monday by defense attorneys is focused on that lack of access, not the conditions of the jail itself, though those conditions are getting a whole lot of attention as well. According to The New York Times, attorneys actually began losing access earlier in January and the jail blamed it on the federal shutdown.
Over the weekend, families of inmates and protesters showed up at the jail and scuffled with the guards. Some people claimed to have been pepper-sprayed. Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney and director of policy at Brooklyn Defender Services, attended protests on Saturday and Sunday evening. He described to Reason seeing the inmates in the dark jail waving their flashlights at the windows and tapping on the Plexiglas to make noises.
"There was consistent and constant percussion trying to make sure that everybody knew they were in there," Hechinger says. People on the ground would clap in response to sound patterns, and they would repeat back in forth, inmates responding percussively to their families down on the street. On Sunday, family members would shout up names of relatives being held in the jail. Sometimes, Hechinger says, the mass tapping from inside the detention center would stop so that just that inmate could tap out a response to indicate they were present.
"There was a powerful connection between people on the outside and people on the inside," he says.
Hechinger and Brooklyn Defender Services do not represent the clients in that center. They represent people arrested for local and state crimes in the Brooklyn area and at Riker's Island. Indigent inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center are represented by the Federal Defenders of New York, who filed the lawsuit today. A representative from the center has not returned a call from Reason for comment.
On Sunday night, power and some heat was finally restored to the jail, but attorneys and family members are still struggling to see clients and relatives. The Bureau of Prisons' page for the center notes at the top that "[a]ll visiting at this facility is suspended until further notice." Meetings between attorneys and clients today were canceled after a reported bomb threat.
A couple of things that are important to note here: First of all, this actually is a "detention center" in the sense that many of the people being held here have been charged with federal crimes but not yet convicted, or they have been convicted but not yet sentenced. Depriving people who have not been convicted of access to their lawyer has a serious impact on their ability to put together a defense or—more likely—negotiate favorable plea deals.
That these people spent the last week cold and in the dark probably took an additional psychological toll. We know via studies that when people are detained in jail prior to trial (instead of being free to put together a defense, hold down a job, and continue being around family), they're more likely to accept plea deals that result in harsher sentences. The defense attorneys say that denying them access violates the Sixth Amendment rights of the defendants.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that this detention center isn't some turn-of-the-century workhouse where we should expect struggles with modern infrastructure demands. It was built in the early 1990s to fight overcrowding, a direct result of America's ramping up its trend of mass incarceration. At the time the jail was opening its doors, more than half of all federal prisoners were serving sentences for drug crimes, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has waded into the dispute, calling for an investigation, saying the situation raised the possibility of violations of law. Cuomo's intervention ends up being a reminder of how many complaints people have about the horrible conditions of New York's own prisons, particularly Riker's Island, which activists have been trying to get shut down. Newsday reporter Matthew Chayes noted that these kind of protests cannot even happen at Riker's Island due to its location.
Hechinger, though, wants to make it clear that the conditions at Riker's can be just as terrible. In fact, he says Brooklyn Defenders has clothing drives to help Riker's inmates bundle up for winter. He says he offered some of these clothes to the Metropolitan Correction Center to help the inmates, but was turned down.
"This shouldn't be viewed as a rare or unique circumstance," Hechinger says. "This is endemic. This is not the time to just focus on what's wrong at MDC, but it's a time to look at conditions of confinement in New York State and New York City and around the country."