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Nearly $11 Million Settlement Reached in Suit by BOP Prisoners Held Without Heat, Electricity During New York Winter Storm

by Douglas Ankney

On August 18, 2023, an agreement was reached by Defendant officials with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) paying $10,936,250 to settle claims brought in a class-action lawsuit by prisoners and detainees who suffered for a week without electricity or heat at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in the midst of a 2019 winter storm known as a “polar vortex.”

The suit was filed by federal detainees David Scott, Jeremy Cerda, Osman Ak, Merudh Patel, Gregory Hardy and Larry Williams on behalf of themselves and some 1,600 others held at MDC when an electrical fire plunged the prison into darkness and cold from January 27 to February 3, 2019.

According to their complaint, Defendant Herman E. Quay, MDC’s warden at the time, had prior notice of the deteriorating conditions that sparked the blaze but chose not to take remedial action. One of his predecessors, former Warden Cameron Lindsay, said that over the prior 10 years that “MDC was one of the most troubled, if not the most troubled” BOP lockup. Prisoner grievances showed that complaints about the cold and fluctuating temperatures had dated back five years, a period when BOP knew that HVAC equipment was in need of an upgrade.

Quay was aware that in November and December 2018, MDC was locked down due to a power outage. And at least three other blackouts lasting a day or more occurred in the month leading up to the fire. On January 4, 2019, Quay was informed that the West Building at MDC was operating on emergency lighting only. The lighting was “intermittent, dim, and could result in certain areas of total darkness,” the prisoners’ complaint recalled. Quay cancelled attorney visits until electricity was restored the following day.

Co-defendant MDC Facilities Manager John Maffeo admitted that problems with its heating began on January 13, 2019. But he refused to permit electricians into the troubled area, choosing to “handle it personally,” the complaint continued. Matteo also admitted that “multiple heating coils burst on January 21, 2019,” including “one responsible for heating inmate cells.”

Anthony Sanon, President of the Local American Federation of Municipal and Government Employess, the union representing him and most other MDC guards, “reported to his superiors in mid-January” that “problems with cold” left guards “wearing scarves, coats, and hats on duty.” Numerous prisoners reported that some areas of MDC had no heat beginning on January 19, 2019. Quay “assured Sanon they would monitor the heat.” But Sanon described Quay’s response as “superficial” and said the warden was “trying to sugarcoat it.”

On January 27, 2019, an electrical panel in the control room caught fire. MDC “lost electricity in a number of systems and equipment, including overhead lighting and electrical outlets in cells and common areas, phones, computer systems, and overhead lighting and electrical outlets in staff offices and common areas.” In addition to the loss of lighting, heat went out during a “Polar Vortex” with record-breaking cold temperatures.

Defendants then suspended attorney and family visits but offered no explanation. Five days into the crisis, Defendants released a statement blaming Con Edison for the “electrical failure.” The utlity immediately denied the accusation and later attributed the fire and power outage “to the failure to remedy preexisting problems at the jail. Instead of fixing the problem, the MDC had put more demands for more power on a weaker system.”

When heat and electrical power were lost, prisoners were locked in their cells 24 hours a day. But they were not provided additional clothing or blankets; with the commissary closed, none could be purchased. There was no lighting in the cells. Prisoners could neither read nor even see the food brought to them. There were no visits, no phones, no emails and no televisions. Prisoners huddled under their blankets and exercised to stay warm. There was no hot water, so they wore dirty clothes for failure of laundry services. Prisoners banged on their cell doors in frustration. One prisoner had a seizure, but no one responded when the emergency call button in his cell was pressed. Other routine medical requests were ignored as were emergency requests for treatment for a dental abscess. After several days, prisoners were permitted out of their cells for cold showers and access to Federal Defender telephones.

Per terms of the settlement, 945 claimants will receive $8,750 each; 69 claimants, each receiving $17,500, had medical conditions that went untreated during the crisis; another 554 claimants will receive $2,500 each. All awards are inclusive of attorney’s fees and legal costs.

The proposed settlement is conditioned upon acceptance of its terms by the judge and by a “critical mass” of potential claimants. The parties will meet with the Court in April 2024 to update settlement status. The government further agreed to pay up to $75,000 to locate and notify claimants of the proposed settlement. Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP in Manhattan, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. See: Scott v. Quay, USDC (E.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:19-cv-01075.  


Additional source: New York Times

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Related legal case

Scott v. Quay