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New York City Pre-trial Detainees Exposed to Freezing Temperatures at Federal Jail

by Ed Lyon 

The Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York, a 1,654-bed facility operated by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that houses defendants awaiting trial, was without main and generator-supplied electricity between January 27 and February 3, 2019 – a frigid stretch of winter during which outdoor temperatures dropped to just two degrees at one point.

The 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government that ended on January 25, 2019 caused a staff shortage at the jail, which had not been resolved when a power failure sparked an electrical fire in a control panel, which, in turn, caused a poorly designed generator cross-over switch to fuse, leaving the entire facility in the dark with no heat for a full week. 

At first, Warden Herman Quay denied there was a problem with cold temperatures at MDC. But family and friends of detainees who gathered outside the building posted photos and video to social media in which no lighted windows were seen and prisoners could be heard beating “SOS” in Morse code on Plexiglass windows from their cells.

A week into the crisis, the BOP issued a statement on February 3, 2019 maintaining that the men’s building had “limited power in some areas” and the women’s building was not affected. In any event, the statement continued, the power outage had not affected heating and hot water, which are supplied by steam boilers.

But maintenance personnel said the heating system requires electrical power to pump hot water from the boiler through pipes located along the building’s exterior walls in order to heat the jail. Without electricity to operate the pumps, the empty pipes froze. 

Betsy Ginsberg, an attorney who runs a civil rights clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, had been turned away from MDC the week of January 20, 2019, when staff said they had to shut down power to test a generator. She then heard of the fire at the jail. On January 31, when contacted by the New York Times, Ginsberg said the facility had been without power during the four days since the blaze.

“[They] are on lockdowns with no lights, no CorrLinks [the email system used by federal prisoners],” she added. “No social calls, some units have heat and some don’t.”

Guards at MDC wore winter hats, coats and scarves to stay warm enough to work while the city supplied hundreds of blankets and hand-warmers to the prisoners. It took an order from a federal judge before Chief Federal Public Defender Deirdre von Dornum was allowed entry to inspect the jail on February 1, 2019. She found detainees locked in their cells and layered in clothing with blankets and towels wrapped around their heads to retain body heat. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, whose district includes the facility, arrived on February 3, 2019 to see what von Dornum had called a “dark closet.” The congresswoman’s one-word description of the situation? “Nightmare.” 

“The heat is sporadic and it’s uneven,” Velázquez reported, adding that temperatures inside the building hovered near 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius).

David Patton, executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York, toured the facility and read thermometers recording temperatures inside cells between 50 and 69 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 20.5 degrees Celsius).

Family and legal visits at the jail were suspended for the seven days it took to make repairs, replace the control panel and restore main power. Protesters rallied outside in support of the beleaguered prisoners throughout the ordeal.

With the promise of normal operations resuming by 6:30 to 7:00 p.m. on February 3, visits with attorneys were allowed to resume, but not before guards deployed pepper spray to repel 70 or so family members and other supporters who attempted to enter the building earlier that day. U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle said the agency would review the situation.

On February 4, 2019, attorneys with the Federal Defenders of New York filed suit against the BOP and Warden Quay in U.S. District Court, alleging that detainees had been held in constitutionally “inhumane” conditions at MDC. See: Federal Defenders of New York v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NY), Case No. 1:19-cv-00660.

After hearing testimony from two prisoners, federal judge Analisa Torres and New York State Attorney General Letitia James led a tour of the jail on February 5, 2019 to interview more detainees about conditions during the power outage. 

James had previously said the situation at the facility was “unacceptable, illegal, and inhumane,” while Governor Andrew Cuomo referred to conditions at MDC as a “violation of human decency and dignity.”

“It was over a week before the federal government even made a comment about what was going on, so someone has to be held accountable,” said City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams. “The tour we did, there seemed to be no sense of urgency at all about how to have an emergency plan or even how to get information to loved ones who were waiting for word that their loved one [at MDC] was ok.” 


Sources: The New York Times, NBC News, CNN, Chicago Tribune, New York Post, Huffington Post,,

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