Jail

Federal Public Defenders Sue Over Terrible State of Brooklyn Detention Center

Inmates were left in the dark and frigid cold for a week, while families and lawyers were denied access.

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Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn, protests
Andy Katz/Pacific Press/Newscom

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."

NEXT: Encouraging Civil Discourse at a Time of Partisan and Ideological Bitterness

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  1. That detention center is just plain nasty.

    If the state wants to warehouse those convicted of crimes, the chaperones of those being warehoused should face criminal sanctions should such warehouses lose heat and / or electricity.

  2. A sign of a truly refined democratic republic that is in no way subject to bureaucratic capture or the “iron triangle” effect. Outrage that suspects, not convicts were subjected to this is a step shy of the issue–prisons should be humane for even the worst serial killers. This comes from a view on the part of the state that these detainees are less than human, ripe for maltreatment and punishment, because after all, “they” are “bad” and “we” are “good” in this matter.

    Fucking bastards.

  3. We need to commit to fully fund our criminal justice system or abuses like this will only continue.

    1. C’mon now, we can’t balance a budget, how can you expect them to fully fund anything. Ending the practice of locking people up for nonviolent drug crimes would go further to reduce these situations.

      End the Drug War and the “criminal and violent aspects” of the drug trade go away as well.

  4. If you can’t do the time, don’t get accused of the crime.

  5. Voters in major cities need to clean up their own houses before preaching to the nation.

  6. This is an actual legitimate function of the state. That they have fucked this up so royally should be an indicator of how they perform at all the other shit they’ve decided was their job.

    1. If you didn’t learn this from the post office, there is really very little hope anything else will open people’s eyes. How much mail do you get from the U.S. Post Office that is actually for you that you want, instead of say ‘Resident’? 98% of the mail we get (an estimate, obviously) is garbage that goes straight into the city recycle bin.

      It’s ludicrous.

  7. This is an actual legitimate function of the state. That they have fucked this up so royally should be an indicator of how they perform at all the other shit they’ve decided was their job.

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