Brooklyn Jail That Lacked Heat Faces a ‘Humanitarian Crisis,’ Lawsuit Claims

By: 
The New York Times
Published on:
February 4th, 2019

Defense lawyers in New York filed suit on Monday over what they said was a “humanitarian crisis” in a troubled Brooklyn federal jail, where a heating system breakdown and a power failure led to inmates being locked down in frigid and dark cells.

The suit, filed in United States District Court in Brooklyn on behalf of the federal public defenders’ office, says that a decision by the jail to cut off inmates’ legal visits with their lawyers violates their constitutional rights. It asks the court to appoint an independent arbiter to investigate the jail, the Metropolitan Detention Center.

A hearing on the case was immediately scheduled for 11 a.m.

The suit follows a call by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Sunday for the Justice Department to investigate conditions at the jail.

On Sunday afternoon, protesters, including family of some of the inmates, tried to enter the jail and appeared to be pepper-sprayed by correction officers, according to the federal defenders. By Sunday night, electrical power was finally restored in the building.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the suit. On Sunday night, a department spokesman said that with heat and hot water also operational, “The facility can now begin to return to regular operations.”

The spokesman, Wyn Hornbuckle, said the department would work with the Federal Bureau of Prisons “to examine what happened and ensure the facility has the power, heat and backup systems in place to prevent the problem from reoccurring.”

The lawsuit says that since Jan. 27, there has been a “near-total cancellation of legal and family visiting” for male inmates in the jail.

The denial of lawyers’ visits violates the inmates’ Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel, the suit said, and has made it impossible for attorneys to help their clients make critical decisions about their cases.

On Monday morning, lawyers were stymied from meeting with their clients yet again after a “possible bomb threat” around 10:30 a.m., the police said. The lawyers were ushered out of the jail building.

The suit pins much of the blame on the jail’s warden, Herman Quay, saying he “consistently dissembled and downplayed the seriousness of the issues at stake.”

The suit cited Warden Quay’s recent statements suggesting that the heat had never shut off, that people had no trouble receiving their medications and that inmates had not been confined to their cells.

“Every single one of these claims has been contradicted by reports from those with firsthand experience of these deplorable conditions,” the suit said.

The jail, in an industrial district near the waterfront in Sunset Park, houses more than 1,600 inmates, mostly detainees who have not yet been convicted of crimes. Many are clients of the federal defenders office, which represents thousands of indigent defendants in the federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The problems at the jail started last month after officials, citing staff shortages caused by the partial government shutdown, began canceling family and lawyer visits, the suit says. A combination of a power failure and an electrical fire on Jan. 27 put the jail on “emergency power” and confined inmates to their cells as the jail went on lockdown, federal defenders say.

Conditions inside the jail had already begun to deteriorate earlier in January when plummeting temperatures reportedly caused heating units to fail.

After the electrical fire, legal visits were canceled all of last week and resumed briefly on Sunday. But they were called off again later in the day after “visiting attorneys began to smell a strong chemical scent, and started coughing, when pepper spray was dispersed” near the visiting room, according to the suit.

The federal defenders asked the court to order the jail to resume allowing daily legal visits, and family visits on the jail’s normal schedule.

In addition to seeking an independent arbiter, or special master, the federal defenders, who are represented in the suit by the law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink, also sought a court hearing to evaluate the jail’s conditions that they argue infringe on inmates’ rights.

“We are asking the court to intervene immediately on behalf of the many hundreds of individuals who are detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center and entrusted to the government’s care,” David E. Patton, the federal defenders’ attorney in chief, said in a statement.

Deirdre von Dornum, who heads the federal defenders’ office in Brooklyn, was permitted to visit the jail after a judge issued an order on Friday. Her account, as quoted in the suit, painted a picture at odds with the warden’s assessment.

“In several of the units, the temperatures were unbearably cold in the cells,” the suit said. She saw inmates wearing as many as eight layers of clothing, while others were wrapped “from head to toe in towels and blankets.”

The suit added that lights were not functioning in cells, leaving inmates in total darkness. As a result of the computer system being down, inmates said they had also not been able to request prescription medicine or medical care.

 

Read this at The New York Times.