Forced To Freeze: The Brooklyn Prison Heating Outage

Photo: Justin Hicks, Gothamist

by Sophia Carlson                                                                                                           Staff Writer

During one of the most extreme cold spells ever recorded in the United States, nearly 1,600 inmates at a Brooklyn federal jail were without electricity and had limited access to heat for over a week as the city’s temperatures neared zero degrees. The issue could have quite possibly gone unnoticed in the national spotlight if it were not for the efforts of the prisoners themselves, who made themselves impossible to ignore by banging on the surfaces of their cell rooms and creating enough noise to attract the attention of anyone in proximity to the jail. The noise was a protest, and it was enough to incite concerned citizens and those with loved ones serving sentences in the Brooklyn jail to demand that action be taken.

Their pleas were heard, and after over a week largely without heat or electricity, the issues were fixed. However, members of the jail’s staff as well as current and formerly incarcerated individuals testified that the Metropolitan Detention Center’s heating system had begun to fail in mid-January, weeks before the situation became apparent to the public. They also stated that there was no visitation during that time from lawyers or loved ones and zero access to phones or television. The New York Times reported that prisoners were even forced to huddle together for warmth in order to bear the deteriorating conditions.

A group of lawyers, part of The Federal Defenders of New York, has gone so far as to sue the jail’s warden, Herman Quay, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, citing that the conditions in the Brooklyn jail violated prisoners’ constitutional rights. [1] In the suit, the lawyers accused Herman Quay and the Federal Bureau of Prisons of failing to take “sufficient steps to obtain temporary supplies of electricity or heat, or to repair the damage.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was swift to condemn the jail’s conditions, calling on the Department of Justice to investigate what he called a “violation of human decency and dignity.” Since then, the DOJ released a statement that the Office of the Inspector General would be looking into whether the Federal Bureau of Prisons acted accordingly to ensure acceptable living conditions for the Brooklyn inmates. [2] The Federal Bureau of Prisons is within the DOJ.

While the White House has failed to comment, New York Attorney General Letitia A. James has issued a statement condemning the situation: “It is unacceptable, illegal, and inhumane to detain people without basic amenities, access to counsel, or medical care. The reported conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center are appalling. Prisoners and detainees have rights and those rights must be enforced.” [3]

But what are those rights exactly? And are the conditions in Brooklyn an isolated event?

While those seem like straightforward questions that anyone could ask, the real answers are much harder to find – and the reason is much more deliberate than one may think. In recent decades, there have been several lawsuits before the Supreme Court regarding prisoners rights or, after some digging will tell you, the ultimate lack thereof.

In 1987, the Supreme Court case Turner v. Safley resulted in a legal precedent that outlined that prisoners’ right to speak to the media existed as long as prison authorities didn’t have a reasonable justification for restricting those rights. Reasonable justification was considered to be anything that could be a threat to internal safety which, as one can imagine, is incredibly far-reaching. For example, in the state of Washington, the display of “excessive emotion” is banned – a limitation that is entirely contingent on the discretion of prison administrators. [4]

Then in 2003, the Supreme Court extended the limitation to prisoner rights’ when they heard the 2003 case Overton v. Bazzetta. This ruling gave prison administrators the power to effectively ignore First Amendment protections and bar prison visitors.  The court ruling stated that in the case that visitors were barred, “Visitation alternatives need not be ideal; they need only be available.”

These rulings show that prisoners have rights so long as it suits the system within which they are contained. Prison administrators’ personal opinions take precedence over the incarcerated individuals’ Constitutional rights. It has now been well-documented that incarcerated individuals are systematically mistreated by either prison administrators or the system itself, but is the public really aware of the legal pedestal upon which the prison system stands?

“It is unacceptable, illegal, and inhumane to detain people without basic amenities, access to counsel, or medical care…Prisoners and detainees have rights and those rights must be enforced.”

New York Attorney General Letitia A. James

It is no accident that the public is unaware when it comes to prison conditions. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Pell v. Procunier that prison officials’ could prohibit the communication and overall access between journalists and incarcerated people. Like the ruling in Overton v. Bazzetta, administrators’ personal discretion trumped inmates’ rights. But if journalists and news outlets cannot even investigate the internal conditions of prisons, then how could the public ever become aware of them, and how could the prisons themselves be held to a reasonable standard? Further, did the Brooklyn prisoners truly have no choice but to resort to banging on the walls of their cell rooms to force attention upon their situation? Under the aforementioned legal precedents, it is incredibly likely that this is the case.

In fact, the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn has a unique history of deplorable conditions.  The National Association of Women Judges released reports in 2015 and 2016 that highlighted conditions in the female wing that it described as “unconscionable.” The same group later purported that the Federal Bureau of Prisons failed to adequately address the issues highlighted in the reports for those two years. One of the issues included in the latter report was the May 2016 prosecution of three guards for the sexual abuse of incarcerated women at the Metropolitan Detention Center. These reports were so concerning that one Brooklyn magistrate, Judge Cheryl Pollak, refused to send female defendants to the jail in 2016. [5]

The most recent instance of unlivable conditions within the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn is neither the first nor, likely, the last incident of reported mistreatment towards incarcerated individuals within the United States prison system. This system, as it operates presently, presides with almost complete legal control and discretion over the incarcerated individuals within it. Until then, it is important to look towards remedying what many consider to be the root of the problem: the all encompassing issue of mass incarceration which places immeasurable pressures on the judicial system and the incarcerated individuals bound by it.


[1] “Lawsuit calls Brooklyn jail conditions a ‘humanitarian crisis,’” New York Post

[2] “Justice Department orders investigation after inmates at Brooklyn prison went days without heat,” CNN

[3] “Inmates without power at New York federal prison shivering in their cells for days,” CNN

[4] “Family visits make prisoners less likely to reoffend. But some states make visiting hard,” Vox

[5] “Judge refuses to send women to Brooklyn jail with ‘third world’ conditions,” NAWJ

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