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Freezing Inmates Desperate for Heat at Federal Detention Center in Brooklyn

The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. (jim.henderson/Wikimedia)

More than a thousand people incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., say they have been locked in freezing cells for a week. Activists and inmates’ family members gathered outside the federal facility on Saturday to demand humane conditions.

A power outage has left the jail’s more than 1,600 inmates to endure this week’s brutal cold snap without light or heat. Because they are also without computers, inmates have been unable to contact loved ones, renew medical prescriptions or email attorneys for help. Jail cells do not have electrical power, according to federal defender Deirdre von Dornum, who visited the facility on Friday night. Inmates are also not being let into common areas.

“In the past hour I have gotten 11 calls,” said Rachel Bass, a paralegal with the Federal Defenders of New York. She said people were experiencing congestion. “People are frantic. They’re really, really scared. They don’t have extra blankets. They don’t have access to the commissary to buy an extra sweatshirt.” (There was not enough electricity for the commissary to be open.)

“The pitch black has made it significantly more agonizing for them,” von Dornum said.

“I am frustrated. This is America. In America, everyone has rights,” said Democratic Rep. Nydia Velazquez, whose district includes the MDC. “It’s a violation of their human rights to be kept in the cold and not to be able to talk to anyone,” added Velazquez, who visited the jail on Friday but was not allowed to speak with inmates.

“It’s important to realize that these are people who are pre-trial detainees. They haven’t been convicted of crimes,” said David Patton, executive director of Federal Defenders of New York. “They’re entitled to have daily access to their attorneys.”

On Thursday, lawyers filed a motion in Brooklyn federal court out of concern for the health of Dino Sanchez, an inmate who has asthma and “has been left to freeze in his short-sleeved jumpsuit in the dark.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons said that MDC was “experiencing a partial power outage.” Contradicting inmates’ claims, the agency said that “Cells have heat and hot water, there is lighting in the common areas and inmates are receiving hot meals.”

The extreme cold has also taken a toll on workers, who are often caught between two possibilities: Either work gets canceled and they don’t get paid, or they must brave dangerous conditions. A 69-year-old FedEx worker, William L. Murphy, was found dead in the bitter cold in East Moline, Ill., on Thursday morning. His body was between two semi-tractors, according to a local police captain. The weather has also been particularly difficult for people who do not have a regular place to sleep.

“We’re always concerned, but especially when you can get frostbite in about eight minutes,” said Wendy Weckler, the executive director of Hope House, a homeless shelter in Milwaukee, Wis.

Naomi LaChance
Blogger / Editorial Assistant
Naomi LaChance has written for local newspapers such as the Berkshire Eagle and the Poughkeepsie Journal as well as national outlets including NPR, the Intercept, TYT Network and the Huffington Post. Her…
Naomi LaChance

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